The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals has turned away an appeal of a $28.1 million dollar judgment awarded to 6 plaintiffs (commonly referred to as the Beatrice Six) for damages imposed by a federal jury for a reckless investigation and manufacturing false evidence orchestrated by the Gage County Sheriff’s department. The plaintiffs spent two decades in prison for the rape and murder of Helen Wilson, but DNA testing revealed that the murder was actually committed by another individual.
Gage County previously hired a law firm to help plan a potential Chapter 9 bankruptcy case to avoid payment of the judgment (see Can Gage County Discharge Intentional Wrongdoing in Bankruptcy?), and now that the appeal has been lost it appears that the county must make a final decision on whether to file a case.
This case is familiar to us, as it is to Nebraskans and much of the nation. It returns after three prior opinions by this Court, two trials, and, now, one jury verdict that is contested on this appeal. We are asked here, in large part, to sweep the pieces off the board—to overturn our prior rulings—in order to vacate the jury’s verdict. We decline to do so. And, after careful examination of the remaining claims on appeal, we find no other reason to disturb the verdict or rulings by the district court. Thus, we affirm.
There is little doubt that a county whose annual budget is roughly the same amount as the judgment in question cannot afford to pay the judgment in one financial year, but there is also little doubt that the county would have no problem paying the judgment over a term of years with modest real estate tax hike.
Ultimately, the Nebraska bankruptcy court will have to decide whether a Chapter 9 case filed with the sole purpose of denying just compensation to 6 plaintiffs wrongfully incarcerated for 20 years of their lives can be approved when the county has ample revenue sources to pay the debt in full over a reasonable period of time. Should the bankruptcy court even entertain the notion of allowing a Chapter 9 plan to be confirmed until the county shows a good faith effort to pay a significant portion of the judgment? Can the county actually propose any plan in good faith if it fails to increase taxes by even 1% to pay some of this judgment?