The man convicted in the murders of a family of Brazilian missionaries broke down crying Thursday as a three-judge panel weighed his fate.
But Jose “Carlos” Oliveira-Coutinho's tears weren't over the death of the family members or the sordid hangings of a woman and her 7-year-old son.
They flowed as a psychologist recounted the death of Oliveira's stepfather and what effect it had on Oliveira. The stepfather died while trying to rescue a child during a flood.
Oliveira was convicted of a savage crime in which he and two co-workers beat their boss, Vanderlei Szczepanik, in a dispute over wages Oliveira believed he was owed.
The three then hanged Szczepanik's wife, Jaqueline, and 7-year-old son, Christopher, before dumping their bodies in the Missouri River.
A three-judge panel — made up of the trial judge, Thomas Otepka, as well as District Judge William Zastera of Sarpy County and District Judge Mark Kozisek of several western Nebraska counties — heard testimony and attorneys' arguments during a six-hour hearing Thursday.
The panel is expected to rule within six weeks on whether he should receive the death penalty.
Oliveira faces the possibility of becoming the 12th person on death row in Nebraska. If not sentenced to death, he will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Prosecutors Jim Masteller and John Alagaban argue that he deserves death as the ringleader who orchestrated the killings.
The hearing was more tedious than tense. The panel accepted dozens of exhibits designed to compare Oliveira's crimes with other crimes that have, or have not, merited the death penalty.
The courtroom was sprinkled with few observers — as court personnel and attorneys' staff far outnumbered those in the gallery.
Not on hand: Jaqueline Szczepanik's daughter, Tatiane Klein, who had testified at Oliveira's trial. Klein recently moved her family to Florida to tend to one of the Szczepaniks' homes.
Those on hand: a man who lived near the school the Szczepaniks and Oliveira were renovating, an Omaha police sergeant and a detective who handled the investigation into the missing family. And a juror.
In October, that man and his fellow jurors convicted Oliveira and found six aggravating factors that could merit the death penalty — essentially two per murder victim. The aggravating factors: that there were multiple murders, that the murders were committed for financial gain and that they were committed to cover up another murder.
Thursday's hearing was Oliveira's chance to counter those aggravating factors.
His attorneys, Todd Lancaster and Horacio Wheelock, submitted a written brief arguing that there were 20 mitigating factors that should weigh in Oliveira's favor and against the death penalty.
Among them: that Oliveira had no significant criminal history; that he acted under “unusual pressure or influences;” and that Oliveira was an “accomplice in the crime and his participation was relatively minor.”
Lancaster and Wheelock also noted that Oliveira's co-defendants have received much less punishment. Valdeir Goncalves-Santos turned state's witness at the close of his own trial and cooperated against Oliveira.
In return, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison — a sentence that is cut in half under state sentencing guidelines.
The third worker, Elias Lourenco-Batista, was deported before further evidence was developed and he could be charged, according to prosecutors.
Dr. Scott Bresler, a forensic psychologist who interviewed Oliveira, testified that Oliveira had a sordid background.
His parents were alcoholics. His father left the family before Oliveira was born. His stepfather drowned.
The family was poor and lived in a hut so undeveloped that the family used an outhouse.
Oliveira came to America illegally and worked for Szczepanik for several years in Florida and then Omaha.
Bresler said Oliveira was beside himself as he spoke about his decisions. “What a mess I've made of my life and my family,” Bresler said the man told him.
No one is feeling that mess more than members of the Szczepanik family, prosecutors say.
Alagaban told the three judges that the aggravating factors outweigh anything that should be considered in Oliveira's favor. Alagaban said Oliveira essentially tried to make an entire family disappear.
“It's unfathomable ... the horror of all of that,” Alagaban said. “And what underlies the murders is greed.”
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