Four years after a 68-year-old woman was raped and killed in her Beatrice, Nebraska, home, six people – three men and three women – were convicted of committing the crime together.
Joseph White was convicted by a jury in 1989 for his alleged role in the crime and sentenced to life without parole. DNA testing conducted on appeal in 2008 proved that another man had committed the crime and led to the exonerations of all six defendants. White served more than 18 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Sometime during the night of February 5, 1985, 68-year-old Helen Wilson was sexually assaulted and killed in the Beatrice, Nebraska, apartment where she lived alone. Relatives had visited her on February 5 and left her at the apartment in the evening. Her body was found in the apartment the next morning by her sister – she had been sexually assaulted, stabbed and suffocated to death. A significant amount of cash was found inside the apartment.
Semen was detected on swabs collected from the victim’s body during the autopsy, a cutting from the carpet below her body and a cutting from her nightgown. Blood stains were also identified on the victim’s clothing and bedding. Investigators found three fingerprints in her house, including one on a knife and two on a door frame.
A car similar to the Oldsmobile Cutlass driven by White’s co-defendant Thomas Winslow
was apparently seen near Wilson’s home on the night of the crime, and police questioned Winslow about the murder. They also searched his car for evidence and eventually returned it.
Investigating officers were aware at the time of similar crimes in the neighborhood. In the summer of 1983, approximately 18 months before this attack, there had been three attempted sexual assaults of elderly women within four blocks of Wilson’s home. The perpetrator of these assaults was described as a tall, thin white man acting alone. An FBI analysis of the Wilson murder and the three other crimes concluded that “we can say with almost total certainty that this crime was committed by one individual acting alone.”
Police investigated several suspects immediately after the Wilson murder, including a man named Bruce Allen Smith, who had left town for Oklahoma shortly after the crime. The Beatrice police worked with Oklahoma authorities to obtain samples of Smith’s blood, saliva and pubic hair for testing in connection with the Wilson murder. Joyce Gilchrist, a forensic technician who has since been widely discredited for forensic fraud, was working in the Oklahoma City Police crime lab at the time and conducted serology testing on the samples from Smith. She reported – incorrectly – that the samples excluded him as a possible perpetrator of the crime. Based on an incorrect interpretation of serology test results, officials cleared several other suspects from suspicion.
Four years later, Thomas Winslow was in jail for an unrelated incident and investigators approached him about the murder of Helen Wilson. Officers said if he helped them solve the 1985 murder he could be released on bond for the pending charges. He soon learned, however, that investigators had already spoken with an informant – who pointed to Winslow and several others in the crime.
Separately, Ada JoAnn Taylor
also allegedly told officers that Winslow and White were involved. Another man, James Dean
, admitted involvement in the crime, but said in a July 1989 deposition that 70-90% of his recollection came from dreams. Winslow said he began hearing threats from jailers about him “going to the electric chair.”
After Winslow, White and their co-defendants became suspects, Nebraska forensic analysts began to state that serology testing on blood and semen from the crime scene could represent “mixtures” and have come from almost anyone. If this were the interpretation when Bruce Allen Smith was investigated, he would not have been excluded as a suspect.
Based on statements from alleged participants and informants, six people were arrested in 1989 and charged with participating in the murder – Thomas Winslow, Joseph White, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Kathy Gonzalez
, James Dean and Debra Shelden
The Trial, Pleas and Biological Evidence
Joseph White was the only defendant in this case to go to trial, and three of his five co-defendants testified against him in exchange for shorter sentences than those they may have received had their own cases gone to trial.
James Dean testified that he participated in the crime with the five others and saw White and Winslow raping the victim and Taylor holding her down. Taylor testified that she held a pillow over the victim’s face while White and Winslow raped her. Debra Shelden, a relative of the victim, testified that she was with the other five at the scene of the crime and tried to intervene but was struck by White and didn’t remember much about the incident.
Kathy Gonzalez testified that she had lived in the same apartment building as the victim at the time of the crime and that White had raised the idea of committing a burglary with her. She was not asked at White’s trial about her activity on the day of the murder. Thomas Winslow did not testify at White’s trial.
A statement about serology testing was also read to the jury at White’s trial. Jurors were told that serology testing had determined that blood from the crime scene could have come from Gonzalez and that semen at the crime scene came from someone with a blood type “similar” to that of Winslow. Jurors were not told that the crime scene samples could have been a mixture of fluids from the perpetrator and the victim and that the victim’s blood type could have “masked” the perpetrator’s. The jury was also not told that multiple men with blood types similar to the crime scene evidence had been excluded during the investigation, nor was the percentage of the population with similar blood types given.
The jury also learned that the fingerprints from the crime scene did not match the victim, any of the defendants or any relatives of the victim known to have been in the apartment. White testified that he was never in the victim’s apartment and did not commit the crime.
White was convicted by the jury and sentenced to life in prison. After his conviction, Winslow agreed to plead no contest in exchange for a 50 year sentence. The other four defendants pled guilty as well. Taylor was sentenced to 10-40 years. Gonzalez, Dean and Shelden were sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Post-Conviction Appeals and Exoneration
Gonzalez, Dean and Shelden served approximately four and a half years before they were released. Appeals in the case were repeatedly denied by Nebraska courts, until late 2007, when White and Winslow finally obtained access to DNA testing on semen from the crime scene. Prosecutors said the results matched the profile of Bruce Allen Smith, the man who was a leading suspect in the days after the murder. Smith died in Oklahoma in 1992.
White’s conviction was vacated and he was released on October 15, 2008. Two days later, Winslow was resentenced to time served and released. Taylor was released on parole November 10, 2008. Charges were dropped against White the same day. They had each served more than 18 years for a murder in which they had no involvement. Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning joined the defendants and Gage County Attorney Randy Ritnour in seeking to clear the “Beatrice Six” entirely. Beatrice Police Chief Bruce Lang said the DNA results had led to a reinvestigation of the case, and “there is no doubt in our minds that Bruce Smith is the lone perpetrator of this crime.”
White was fully exonerated when charges against him were dropped on November 10, 2008. On January 26, 2009, his five co-defendants were pardoned by the state, clearing their names entirely. They were the first six people exonerated by DNA evidence in Nebraska history.
In 2011, White was killed in a construction accident in Alabama. The state of Nebraska agreed to pay $500,000 in compensation. White received $25,000 before his death and his estate received $475,000. A federal civil rights lawsuit filed against Gage County was dismissed twice and the dismissal reversed both times. In July 2016, following a trial of the lawsuit, a jury awarded $7.3 million each to Winslow, Taylor and White’s estate; $2 million each to Dean and Gonzalez and $1.8 million to Sheldon.