JOE DUGGAN Ada JoAnn Taylor

Woman in prison for ‘85 murder recants
Ada JoAnn Taylor says she was never in Helen Wilson’s apartment;did not witness rape


OMAHA — The last time Ada JoAnn Taylor spoke publicly about the 1985 killing, she helped convict a man of first-degree murder.

Now, she’s hoping her words will help set him free.

In 1989, Taylor was a 26-year-old dairy worker from North Carolina who told a jury she watched two men rape Helen Wilson on a winter night four years earlier.

She told how she and five other drug users broke into the Beatrice widow’s apartment.

She said she watched Joseph White and Thomas Winslow take turns sexually assaulting the 68-year-old.

And she admitted she held a pillow over Wilson’s face.

“I didn’t want her to see the face that would haunt her,” Taylor testified.

“Why would the face haunt her?” the prosecutor asked.

“I know from previous experience that when you’re raped, the face can haunt you.”

Last week, attorneys representing White and Winslow said DNA tests have cleared them of the rape. They have asked that their cases be reconsidered and are waiting for a judge to decide whether to throw out their convictions.

If they are exonerated, they will be the first Nebraska prison inmates freed by DNA testing.

But the case is complicated, and the outcome remains unclear.

Before it’s decided, Taylor might have to take the witness stand again.

Last time, she said, she lied. This time, she said, she’ll tell the truth.

“I hope they understand I was a young mom, I was dumb and I did what I had to do to save my life,” Taylor told the Journal Star Tuesday, the first time she discussed the case publicly since 1989.

She was never in Helen Wilson’s apartment, she said during an interview at the minimum-security Omaha Community Corrections Center. Nor did she see White and Winslow rape Wilson.

The story about the pillow — not a shred of truth, she said.

Taylor said she lied because investigators and the prosecutor claimed they had evidence to prove her guilt. They forced her to make an agonizing choice — testify against the others and serve seven years in prison, or roll the dice at trial and face a possible life term.

Former Gage County Attorney Richard Smith prosecuted the case. Smith, now a private attorney in Beatrice, said Thursday he did not want to jeopardize new legal proceedings by discussing the 1989 trial.

But he scoffed at Taylor’s claim authorities fed her details so she could help them get convictions.

“The plea agreement was that she had to testify truthfully,” Smith said.

Taylor pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and has spent the past 18 years in prison. She has a year left before her mandatory release.

Some facts about the case are not in dispute, namely that Wilson was severely beaten, bound, raped and suffocated on Feb. 5 or 6, 1985. No arrests were made until 1989, after an investigator obtained new information from a confidential informant, according to stories published that year in the Journal Star.

An investigator then interviewed Winslow, who was being held on an unrelated assault charge, and got more information.

Arrests followed. So did interrogations. And not long after, some of the defendants began cutting deals.

Of the six people arrested in the case, Winslow and White were the only two who didn’t testify for the prosecution.

White maintained his innocence, was convicted by jury of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison.

DNA testing wasn’t an option at the original trial. Investigators did find three fingerprints, but they didn’t match the suspects, the victim or her family.

On the other hand, they found blood with “great similarities” to one of the suspects, who apparently was hit unintentionally by White.

Winslow said he didn’t remember participating in the crime. But after seeing the result of White’s trial, he pleaded no contest to aiding and abetting second-degree murder and was sentenced to 50 years in prison. He remains incarcerated today.

Following her arrest, Taylor said she endured long sessions of questioning by authorities. At a point she can’t remember, she requested an attorney and was assigned one by the court.

Investigators told her they could prove she participated in the crime, she said. They told her they knew White and Winslow did the rape while she held the pillow that suffocated the victim.

“I knew I wasn’t guilty, but you get tired of being told things that after so long, you just started accepting it,” she said this week.

She said Smith, the county attorney, participated in the interrogations and urged her to take the plea agreement, saying he would recommend a 15-year sentence. With good time, she could be free in seven years.

Her court-appointed lawyer said he thought he could win her acquittal, but he also advised that 15 years in prison for second-degree murder was a good deal, Taylor said.

Finally, she said, she agreed to the plea bargain after Smith offered it a fourth time.

“I was coerced. I should have never went with what the investigators or the county attorney wanted said. I should have fought it. I hate the fact that I didn’t fight it.”

She knows some people won’t believe her when she says she’s telling the truth now.

Burdette Searcey of Beatrice would likely fall into that category.

In 1989, when he was with the Gage County Sheriff’s Department, he revived the investigation into the Wilson murder.

Searcey declined to comment when told about Taylor recanting her testimony, except to say, “the evidence will prove out as it did before.”

Smith, the former county attorney, said he spoke with Taylor before she pleaded guilty, but only when her attorney was in the room. He also opted not to debate the facts of the case.

“I never tried cases in the press and I’m not going to start doing that now,” he said.

Attorneys for White and Winslow interviewed Taylor as they worked to get court-ordered DNA testing for their clients. She told them she gave false trial testimony before DNA tests proved the men were not the rapists, said Jerry Soucie, an attorney with the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy.

When asked to describe her testimony of 19 years ago, Taylor said she couldn’t remember details. Nor could she offer an alibi for her whereabouts on the night of Feb. 5, 1985.

At that time in her life, she said, she spent her days drunk on Jack Daniel’s and her nights high on cocaine, she said. She was a violent drunk, she admitted, getting into frequent bar fights. But she insisted she would have remembered if she participated in a murder.

Taylor said she quit drugs and alcohol after leaving Nebraska for North Carolina in 1985. She has earned a GED and completed courses at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, and she plans to take classes at Bellevue University, she said. She attends church every Sunday, she said, and she has developed a relationship with a daughter she lost because of her addictions.

She wants to help the men she lied about, she said. It’s not about reducing her sentence, since she’s almost completed it.

If anything, recanting her testimony puts her at risk of a perjury charge, although she doesn’t think that will happen.

She would like to clear her name, she said. She wants to work with troubled children.

She said she feels badly for the family of Helen Wilson if she’s robbing them of emotional closure. Yet she feels even worse that her testimony helped put White and Winslow in prison.

She hopes they win their freedom soon.

“I didn’t think it through (in 1989),” she said. “I didn’t think what was going to happen to them and I really should not have been that cold-hearted.”

Copyright 2011 Beatrice Daily Sun Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Posted in Local on Friday, August 8, 2008 12:00 am

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KPTM FOX 42: Omaha News, Sports and Weather; kptm.com |DNA Evidence Identifies Real Killer



DNA Evidence Identifies Real Killer

Meghan Youker

LINCOLN (KPTM) -- DNA evidence clears two men in a Beatrice murder case, now more than two decades later, DNA evidence has also identified the man police are confident is the real killer. He's a man who was a suspect from the very beginning.

Six people were convicted for being involved in the 1985 rape and murder of 68-year-old Helen Wilson.  Friday's announcement clears all of them of any wrongdoing.

He was one of ten original suspects, but it took more than 20 years to learn the truth. Prosecutors say Bruce Smith was Wilson's lone killer.  He died of AIDS in Oklahoma in 1992.  He would be 46 years old today.  "Now we know the blood in the bedroom was his, there was blood on parts of her clothes that was his," said Beatrice Police Chief Bruce Lang.

Investigators say Smith grew up in Nebraska and had been partying the night Wilson was murdered.  Police tested his blood in 1985, but for some reason the lab tests done in Oklahoma eliminated him as the possible murderer.  "They stopped looking at him, even though they really liked him as a strong possible suspect," said Gage County Attorney Randy Ritnour.

Attorney General Jon Bruning says a private investigation led by a now retired Beatrice police officer then implicated six innocent people. 

Ada Joanne Taylor was lied to and threatened with the death penalty.  Bruning called the interrogation tactics "embarrasing."  Many of the accused took plea deals.  "The tapes will be on and then they will be off and then they'll show the accused a crime scene photo and say don't you remember this, well that's not used today," Bruning said.

Three people wrongly convicted in the case served nearly 20 years in prison.  Joseph White and Thomas Winslow were recently released because of DNA evidence.  Taylor will be paroled from a work release program on Monday.  Three other people served about four years in prison. Bruning plans to ask that all of them to be pardoned.

Investigators hope the announcement brings closure to Wilson's family and those who were falsely accused.

State Senator Ernie Chambers sponsored the law that allows inmates to ask for DNA testing. He says he's elated innocent people have been cleared, but says these recent developments don't prove the system works; they prove the system doesn't work. "Had they not had those lawyers, we wouldn't be here.  Attorney General Bruning and the task force would not be erasing, not erasing, correcting a very egregious miscarriage of justice," he said.

The former inmates can file civil suits to get compensation for the time they spent behind bars.  Chambers and defense attorneys also plan to look into alleged misconduct of the former Gage County Attorney and various law enforcement.



Incident Date: 2/6/85

Jurisdiction: NE

Charge: Aiding and abetting second-degree murder

Conviction: Aiding and abetting second-degree murder

Sentence: 40 Years
Year of Conviction: 1990

Exoneration Date: 1/26/09

Sentence Served: 19 Years

Real perpetrator found? Yes

Contributing Causes: False Confessions / Admissions, Unvalidated or Improper Forensic Science

Compensation? Not Yet

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.

Ada JoAnnTaylor agreed with prosecutors to plead guilty and testify at the trial of co-defendant
Joseph White regarding her alleged role in the murder. In exchange for her testimony, she was sentenced to 10 to 40 years in prison. She was serving time in a work release program when DNA tests cleared her. She was freed in late 2008 and pardoned in early 2009. She had served nearly 19 years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit.

The Crime 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. The Investigation 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 Taylor'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, 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. All three had 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.