A federal appeals court has refused to reconsider its decision giving six people wrongly convicted of a 1985 murder another chance at suing officials who prosecuted them



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OMAHA, Nebraska — A federal appeals court has refused to reconsider its decision last month giving six people wrongly convicted of a 1985 murder another chance at suing officials who prosecuted them.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday denied without comment the defendants' request to rehear the matter.

The appeals court's ruling in December revived the federal lawsuit of the wrongly convicted people — known as the Beatrice Six — against Gage County and the officials who built the murder cases against them.

The six people — James Dean, Kathleen Gonzalez, Debra Shelden, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Thomas Winslow and Joseph White — were wrongly convicted in the 1985 killing of Helen Wilson in Beatrice and served a combined 77 years in prison before DNA testing cleared them in 2008. They were the first people in the state cleared by DNA evidence, which was made possible by a 2007 Nebraska Supreme Court ruling.

Wilson's killing has since been linked to Bruce Allen Smith, who grew up in Beatrice and returned to town days before the slaying, then quickly went back to Oklahoma. He died in 1992.

The Beatrice Six have argued that Gage County investigators recklessly strove to close the case despite contradictory evidence, rather than seek justice.

In its December ruling, the 8th Circuit said there is substantial evidence to support the idea that Gage County officials conspired to convict the six individuals. That includes evidence that investigators suggested that Dean, Shelden and Gonzalez had repressed memories of the crime, conducted unreported interrogations and ignored verifiable alibis.

Their lawsuit will likely move toward a new trial sometime this year. Lincoln attorney Jennifer Tonka said Thursday that her clients have not yet made any specific decisions on how they will proceed.

"We're getting together soon to discuss what our next move is," Tonka said.

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