Financial restitution would be available for people who serve prison time despite their innocence under a bill heard Thursday, March 9 by the judiciary committee of the Nebraska legislature. LB 656, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Roy Baker, would allow an innocent individual wrongfully incarcerated for a felony offense to seek benefits under the Nebraska Claims for Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment Act.
Baker said he brought the bill in response to the $28.1 million in damages awarded to the six men and women wrongly convicted of the beating death of a Beatrice woman in 1985, commonly referred to as the “Beatrice 6.”
The six sued Gage County in federal court after they were exonerated by DNA evidence.
Following denial of an insurance claim to pay for the damages, Gage County could face bankruptcy if forced to pay the judgment.
Don Schuller, a farmer and resident of Gage County, testified in support of the bill. He said if the county were forced to pay the judgment, it would disproportionately impact agricultural land owners, who already pay 63 percent of property taxes in the county.
“It’s been said that the people of Gage County are responsible for the actions of the people they elect to office,” he said. “The people of Gage County are just as innocent as the Beatrice 6, but some expect us to pay for the errors of our elected officials.”
Lyle Koenig, an attorney who originally represented wrongly convicted JoAnn Taylor at trial, also supported the bill.
He said five of the six defendants accepted plea deals and admitted guilt to avoid going to trial and potentially receiving the death penalty. Had the death penalty not been threatened, Koenig said, the defendants might not have accepted deals.
“It was the law of Nebraska, not a local ordinance, that is largely responsible for the predicament Gage County currently is in,” he said. “Had there been no death penalty, which is state law, this case would have been tried and an acquittal would have been a distinct possibility.”
Under the bill, political subdivisions and individual claimants also could apply for financial restitution with the State Claims Board, if the final damages awarded by a federal court exceed the financial resources of the relevant political subdivision.
A successful claimant under the bill would be a person who is unable to file a claim against the state or a political subdivision in state court but who obtains a final federal judgment for damages arising from violation of his or her constitutional rights.
The bill also would rename the act as the Nebraska Claims for Wrongful Conviction or Incarceration Act.
No one testified in opposition to the bill and the committee took no immediate action on it.
The Unicameral Update is the official news service of the Nebraka legislature. - Editor