State Seeks Pardons for Defendants Wrongfully Convicted in 1985 Nebraska Murder
Six people were convicted of a 1985 murder they didn't commit; 4 confessed.
Jan. 26, 2009— -- Kathy Gonzalez had to make a decision. It was October 1989, and Gonzalez had been in jail in Beatrice, Neb., for months, accused of a murder she did not commit.
Gonzalez hadn't heard the name Helen Wilson in the four years since her elderly downstairs neighbor had been raped and murdered, until the day police swept into the basement of McCormick's seafood restaurant in Denver and led Gonzalez out in handcuffs.
She'd waived extradition from Colorado, saying recently that she figured she could quickly clear up the misunderstanding and go home. But when she got back to Beatrice, Gonzalez discovered several suspects were already in custody, and they were telling police she was involved in Wilson's murder.
Gonzalez, then 29, says she had never even met some of her co-defendants. They, like her, were people at the margins, drifters, some with drug problems, others suffering from mental illness.
For months, Gonzalez says, the police hounded her and called her a liar. She met with a police psychologist, who suggested the murder was so horrific that she simply blocked it out, and offered to work with her to help her remember. When Gonzalez protested that she didn't know one of her co-defendants, the psychologist, Wayne Price, told her, "You apparently don't want to."
"The odds are that at this time, it looks like you were in [there] but did in fact block it," Price said. "And if you can help you out by remembering, it will help you."
"Yeah," Gonzalez sighed.
Now, she says, she was being given 24 hours to decide, either plead to a lesser charge or go to trial for first-degree murder and face the possibility of the death penalty. She says the police kept telling her she would be the first woman to be executed in state history. The police deny threatening her, and her lawyer said he could not recall.
"When you've got the state of Nebraska trying to kill you, it's a little unnerving," she said recently. "They said they had all these people saying I was there, a blood type that matched mine, and they were going to get a conviction."
"I was going to die in prison," she said. "And I caved. I got scared and I caved."
Gonzalez pleaded no contest to aiding and abetting the murder and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. In all, six people were convicted of Helen Wilson's murder. Five of them pleaded guilty or no contest. Four gave detailed statements to the police implicating themselves and the others in the murder.
The Nebraska Attorney General's Office now says DNA evidence shows they were all innocent. Another man, Bruce Allen Smith, acting alone, raped and killed Wilson, the Attorney General says.
At a hearing scheduled for this afternoon, the attorney general's office plans to ask the state to pardon the Beatrice Six, as they have come to be known, bringing what lawyers have called one of most baffling cases in the state's history one step closer to conclusion.
The former Gage County district attorney, Dick Smith, declined to discuss the case. Investigators who worked on the case, however, continue to insist that the Beatrice Six were involved in the murder, though their DNA does not match the crime scene evidence. A lawyer who represented one of the six admits he still has his doubts that the truth about the Wilson murder has come out.
"I have no doubt that we had the right people," said Jerry DeWitt, who was Gage County Sheriff at the time of the investigation. "As far as the one who raped her, his DNA showed up. As far as the actual murder, I think they were all involved."
"A criminal can say anything he wants, whether it's true or not," DeWitt said. "Are you going to believe a cop of 43 years or a drug addict?" (DeWitt says when he arrested Gonzalez in McCormick's she said, "I've been dreading this day for the last four years.")
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