Daniel L. Jones had a tumultuous childhood and was only 16 years old when he helped stab Scott Catenacci to death in a Bellevue park in 1998.
Those factors didn’t make up for the heinousness of what Sarpy County District Judge David Arterburn called an execution. The judge on Monday handed down a sentence that gives Jones, 34, the possibility of parole but puts it decades down the road.
Arterburn sentenced Jones to 80 years to life. Under state law, most sentences are cut in half. Jones will be eligible for parole after 40 years. He was given credit for the 18 years and three days he’s already served.
Six people were ultimately convicted of charges stemming from the death of 19-year-old Catenacci in September 1998. Catenacci was stabbed almost 60 times after being lured by his friends to Bellevue’s Haworth Park.
One of the defendants later told Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office investigators that Catenacci’s screams were so piercing that she thought it was a woman. Catenacci fought so hard he dislocated his hip.
The teenagers initially said they killed Catenacci as revenge for him roughing up Niccole Wetherell during group sex. Authorities said later that the rough sex was just an excuse and that the killing was the culmination of increasingly bad behavior.
Jones was 16 when he was arrested and 17 when he was sentenced. He did not stand trial. Instead, Jones pleaded no contest to a first-degree murder charge and was sentenced to life.
Wetherell and James Hargett also pleaded no contest to first-degree murder charges in connection with Catenacci’s death. Wetherell and Hargett were not minors at the time and are both serving life sentences in prison.
The other three people convicted in the case were given lesser sentences and have completed their prison sentences.
Jones had to be resentenced because of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Miller v. Alabama, which said automatic life terms without parole for juveniles are unconstitutional. Under the ruling, judges can still impose life sentences on juveniles, but that cannot be the judge’s only option.
In Nebraska there are 27 people who were under age 18 when they received mandatory life sentences. Jones’ resentencing was the second and final case out of Sarpy County.
Last month Jason L. Golka was given two terms of 45 years to life for a 2004 double murder in Gretna that occurred 16 days before Golka’s 18th birthday. He’ll be eligible for parole about age 63.
Before the sentencing, Jones told the court he was deeply sorry. He apologized to Catenacci’s family and friends, the Sarpy County community, the prosecutor and the judge for his actions as a 16-year-old.
Every day in prison, Jones said, he tries to better himself for his sisters.
Sarpy County Chief Deputy Attorney Tricia Freeman said the crime was planned and premeditated. There was a knife-sharpening party, she said. And Catenacci was lured to the park under the guise that someone wanted to buy his laptop.
Jones would later tell a witness that he carved something on Catenacci’s head that would show up in the autopsy, Freeman said.
“So we’re not dealing with someone who just got carried away with what other people were doing and he went along with the crowd,” Freeman said. “He was party. He was complicit. He was an actor who had equal culpability with the other two people who are serving forever life sentences because they were 18 at the time of the murder.”
Julie Bear, Jones’ attorney, pointed to her client’s age at the time of the killing and brain science that says a person’s brain is not fully developed at that age. Bear also pointed to Jones’ tumultuous childhood, his decreasing number of misconduct reports while in prison and his IQ at the time of the crime.
At an Aug. 5 mitigation hearing, Jones’ older sister, Rachel Luna, testified that Jones had no true male role model and had a rough childhood as the family moved several times before settling in Bellevue.
Jones had behavioral problems, struggled in school and often appeared to be just following the lead of friends, Luna said.
Arterburn said while that might be the case, Jones has two sisters who are not standing in front of the court convicted of first-degree murder.
It might not have been Jones’ idea, but he was in on the planning and was a very willing participant, the judge said.
“This is a very heinous crime,” the judge said. “And while I consider your age and so forth at the time, it’s just a situation where that any lesser sentence would detract from the seriousness of the crime.”