Failure of Justice by John Ferak is a true crime book that will make fans of “Making a Murderer” absolutely freak out. (Note: a forthcoming book, Avery, by the prosecutor in the Steven Avery case, is reviewed here). In Failure of Justice, John Ferak covers the murder, subsequent investigation, the trial, conviction and eventual exoneration of the Beatrice 6.
The crime occurred in 1985 in a small town in Beatrice, a small town located in Gage County, Nebraska (about 50 miles south of Lincoln, the state capitol). Beatrice (pronounced “bee-AT-rues”), not a hotbed of crime, was mostly white, with a population lower than average in education and income. So when Helen Wilson, a 68-year old widow, was brutally raped and murdered, beaten to death in her downtown apartment, the place went crazy with fear, anger, and lots of people clamoring for justice.
The crime scene was “eerily ritualistic,” and despite the efforts of law enforcement, the trail went cold for four years. Then, the case was apparently miraculously solved with the arrests of six social misfits who, at the time of their arrests, were living in various places including Alabama, North Carolina and Colorado. WTF? Why had they as a group been involved in murdering a kindly, quiet widow?
All six (Joseph White, Ada JoAnn Taylor, James Dean, Thomas Winslow, Kathleen Gonzalez and Debra Shelden) were eventually convicted of the crime and sent to prison, with all of them but White admitting guilt. The folks in Beatrice, particularly Helen Wilson’s family, were convinced that justice had finally been done. They were especially grateful to Sheriff Jerry DeWitt, Deputy Burdette Searcey and Reserve Deputy/psychiatrist Wayne Price, who had been instrumental in obtaining confessions/plea deals and bringing closure.
Nearly twenty years later, White’s protestations of innocence were proven correct when DNA testing of crime scene evidence showed that another man, Bruce Allen Smith, had actually been the murderer. The six, now known as “the Beatrice 6,” were exonerated and later sued Gage County, The case, which went to trial in U.S. District Court in 2014, ended in a mistrial. A new trial, ordered by the 8th Circuit Court, took place in 2016, and ended with the jury awarding the six a combined $28.1 million, plus attorneys’ fees and other costs.
I have long been fascinated with wrongful convictions, particularly those that turn out to be the result of coerced testimony and confessions. As the Beatrice 6 sat in jail, they had all been constantly reminded of their possible fate in Nebraska’s barbaric electric chair. The lengths to which the “authorities” went to get a conviction are stunning, and remind us that our criminal justice system is a mess, particularly when overzealous (sometimes called wacko) policing and prosecution efforts are involved.
What is also fascinating is that Gage County, with a population of just over 20,000, is on the hook for the settlement, awarded to the 6 late last year. (Note: the county declared its intention to appeal in October, and after several extensions, its attorneys submitted a 107-page brief in January 2017. These developments occurred too late to be included in the book, and are interesting postscripts to a story that really explores how people who are misfits, sometimes with limited capacity to understand the situation, can be railroaded in the frenzied, not always well-intentioned, search for “justice.”
With thanks to WildBlue Press and NetGalley, I appreciate the opportunity to receive an advance copy of this book in return for my honest review. It isn’t literature, it’s true crime. And I have read a LOT of true crime, certainly enough to recognize a quality effort in the genre. With that said, this is true crime that is worthy of 5 stars.