The Beatrice Six Sued the Government and Became Millionaires Upon Their Release

Chris Barilla - Author

Mar. 16 2021, Updated 2:09 p.m. ET

A courtroom gavel
Source: Getty

In a new Discovery Plus documentary released on March 16, 2021, Dateline host Keith Morrison unpacks the tragic story of the Beatrice Six. The story, which rocked the small town of Beatrice, Nebr., focuses on the gruesome 1985 murder of then-68-year-old Helen Wilson. Six individuals were arrested in connection with the killing, and what transpired over the years following shook up the core of the small town.

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So, what exactly happened to the Beatrice Six, and more importantly, where are they now? Here's a breakdown of the known details of the case as well as how it played out as the years went on.

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The Beatrice Six fought for their innocence for years.

Ada JoAnn Taylor, Thomas Winslow, James Dean, Kathleen Gonzalez, Debra Shelden, and the estate of Joseph White were all convicted for the murder of Wilson and spent a combined 75 years in prison. However, they were proven innocent thanks to some modern DNA investigation and decided that the only retribution would be to sue those involved in their conviction.

And that they did, taking to court in 2016 where a federal jury awarded the six a combined $28.1 million for the state's wrongdoings. Gage County sought to recoup funds from several insurance companies, all of which declined. As for their payments, the wrongly convicted individuals will receive stipends from the government paid over the course of the next five years.

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Nebraskan government officials attempted to take the case to the Supreme Court and argue that the verdict should stem from the information available at the time of conviction and not today. That argument was rendered invalid by the highest court in the land and the state was ordered to pay $28.1 million in full. Nowadays, the living members of the six all live comfortable, albeit quiet, lives off of the funds they received for their troubles.

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Wait, so how did six people get wrongfully convicted of the same murder?

The wrongful conviction of six individuals is actually attributed to some psychological plays used by investigators at the time. All six people, when brought in for questioning, were told that the reason they didn't recall the murder was that their minds had repressed it. After enough clever police convincing, at least three of the six actually believed that they had committed the murder.

That sentiment didn't extend to Joseph White, one of the six, who knew that there was no way he took part in Wilson's murder and fought for years to prove his innocence. 

It was years before modern DNA testing conducted on blood and semen evidence from Wilson's apartment proved that the six were not the killers. Bruce Allen Smith, who passed away in an Oklahoma prison in 1992, was actually the one responsible for her rape and murder. Nonetheless, the six were promptly freed upon that discovery and began their legal campaign against the state.

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