The Nebraska Supreme Court left little unturned as it upheld spree killer Nikko Jenkins’ conviction and death sentence in the 10-day rampage that left four Omahans dead in August 2013.
In an exhaustive 53-page ruling, the high court sifted through professionals’ often contradictory mental health diagnoses of the troubled Omahan, delved into the state’s repeal and later reinstatement of the death penalty, and explored the years that Jenkins spent in isolation before the killings.
This won’t end Jenkins’ appeals. His attorney, Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley, said Friday that he will raise issues that he believes could result in the U.S. Supreme Court reviewing Jenkins’ case, a rare occurrence even in death penalty cases.
But Jenkins’ conviction and placement on death row just passed one of its most important reviews — the state high court’s rejection of appeals can be difficult for a condemned convict to overcome.
“This ruling was very thorough,” said Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, who prosecuted the case along with his chief deputy, Brenda Beadle. “The criminal justice process really is completed, other than postconviction actions that may be filed later.
“I hate to use the word closure. But at least this tells the victims’ families that they’re not going to have to sit in the courtroom and relive the evidence anymore.”
That fact wasn’t lost on the mother of one of Jenkins’ victims. Jenkins and his sister, Erica Jenkins, took turns shooting Curtis Bradford in the head after luring him to a house near 18th and Clark Streets in northeast Omaha.
“Oh my gosh, I’m glad it’s over,” Velita Glasgow said Friday. “This case has taken so much from us — it just doesn’t hurt the one individual, it hurts the entire family.
“I don’t ever want to have to come to court again. I don’t ever want to see him again. I’m just glad that all this evil is over, and my life can move on.”
While striking a major blow to his chances to succeed on appeal, the Supreme Court’s ruling doesn’t end the court actions on his behalf.
Riley recently filed a motion to have Jenkins removed from death row because state officials have declared him incompetent and in need of forced medications. This ruling didn’t address that request.
Riley noted a couple of ironies coming out of the Nebraska Supreme Court ruling. One, the high court noted that there was ample evidence to support the three-judge panel’s conclusion that Jenkins was feigning mental illness for secondary gain, such as to try to get transferred to different prisons.
At the same time, Nebraska prison officials — including doctors and psychologists — have recently declared that Jenkins is psychotic and is in need of forced medication. In the past week, Jenkins cut his throat — the latest in a series of self-mutilations.
“The irony of this is the (professionals) who are now dealing with him in prison are unanimously saying he has a mental illness,” Riley said. “Not only that, they are saying we need to be able to forcibly medicate him so that we can make him healthy enough to be executed.
“The word ‘irony’ doesn’t even do justice to what that entails.”
In Friday’s ruling, the Nebraska Supreme Court addressed several of Riley and Jenkins’ arguments about whether Jenkins truly is severely mentally ill, what effect his extensive stay in solitary confinement had on him, whether a mentally ill defendant can be executed and the legality of the death penalty.
Jenkins was convicted of the Aug. 11, 2013, killings of Jorge Cajiga-Ruiz and Juan Uribe-Pena after his sister and cousin lured them to an Omaha park on the pretense of sex; the Aug. 19, 2013, killing of Bradford, who served time in prison at the same time as Jenkins, after luring Bradford on the pretext of committing a robbery; and the Aug. 21, 2013, killing of Andrea Kruger, a wife and mother of three, near 168th and Fort Streets.
Jenkins’ court case was so wild, so unconventional and so long that Nebraska lawmakers repealed the death penalty, a ballot initiative was undertaken and Nebraska voters eventually restored it — all while Jenkins was awaiting his fate. Those twists and turns led Riley to challenge whether Jenkins should have even been eligible for the death penalty.
The Supreme Court rejected that argument.
“Less than 3 years ago, Nebraskans had the opportunity to eliminate the death penalty and 61 percent voted to retain capital punishment,” Justice William Cassel wrote. “The judiciary bears no license to end a debate reserved for the people and their representatives. In Nebraska, the people have spoken.”
The high court addressed several other issues that have dogged Jenkins’ case.
Is he severely mentally ill?
The court spent dozens of pages addressing Jenkins’ dueling diagnoses — and pointed to facts that seem to debunk the idea that he hears voices, including those of a serpent god.
In short: about half of the psychologists and psychiatrists who have examined Jenkins have diagnosed him as psychotic or schizophrenic. The other half have determined that he is faking those mental illnesses for secondary benefit, such as to excuse his criminal behavior, to obtain different placement in prison or, at one point, for his hope that he would receive government disability payments upon his release.
The high court noted that the three-judge death penalty panel — including the trial judge, Peter Bataillon — sided with psychiatrists who concluded that Jenkins was malingering.
One notion that the high court took aim at: the defense’s contention that Jenkins spoke of hearing voices when he was 8 years old. Defense experts have pointed to that psychiatrist’s note as proof that Jenkins’ psychosis is long-standing.
The problem: Questioned further, 8-year-old Nikko told the doctor that the voices he was talking about were actual voices of older neighborhood boys who told him to steal a bicycle.
“There is no doubt that Jenkins exhibited abnormal behaviors,” the high court wrote. “A previous report had said (Jenkins) heard voices telling him to do bad things. On further inquiry, (Jenkins) said these are real voices of these older boys, and he only hears them when the boys are there with him. There was no evidence of psychosis or auditory hallucinations.”
Did state prison officials, by keeping him in solitary confinement for years, create a monster that they’re now trying to execute?
Riley argued that Jenkins should not have been put on death row because prison officials had improperly isolated Jenkins during his first prison stint after he committed two carjackings when he was 15 and 16. Riley noted that Jenkins killed these four Omahans within three weeks of his release from a prison term that saw him spend six of his 10 years in solitary confinement.
Jenkins himself has advanced this argument. In his eight-hour confession with detectives, he told them: “The Nebraska Department of Corrections is so responsible. This is equivalent to me being a pit bull that they pull off that chain and whoever it hurt, you’re responsible for it. Because you knew the danger of the animal, knew the danger that you created in that cell.”
The high court agreed that expert studies have shown that “years on end of near-total isolation exact a terrible price.”
“Here, Jenkins’ own actions led to his disciplinary segregation,” the court wrote. “The Department of Correctional Services must have some recourse to deal with an inmate who does such things as manufacture a weapon from a toilet brush ... assault staff, attempt to escape. ... The sentencing panel acted reasonably in not rewarding such behavior.”
The plea hearing
Jenkins’ hearings were often described as circuses — in which Jenkins tried to dominate the proceedings and sometimes claimed to be speaking in tongues to an Egyptian serpent god.
In one hearing, he called County Attorney Kleine and a World-Herald reporter to the stand, which is unusual. Even more unusual, Judge Bataillon allowed him to call both witnesses. The lead prosecutor isn’t a witness; and the shield law typically precludes a reporter from taking the stand.
Jenkins’ plea hearing was the climactic example of business as unusual in Jenkins’ case.
After Bataillon allowed Jenkins to act as his own legal counsel, Jenkins declared that he wanted to plead no contest to the killings.
The judge informed him that he would have to plead guilty rather than “no contest.” Jenkins initially pleaded guilty but said he couldn’t remember shooting each of the victims. He stopped short anytime he got close to describing the actual killings — sometimes bursting into garbled speech in which he claimed to be talking to his serpent god.
Faced with a defendant who wouldn’t describe his guilty actions, Bataillon rethought his original stance, relented and allowed Jenkins to plead no contest. Under no contest pleas, prosecutors give the factual basis of the murder charges.
Riley argued that the judge’s changing conditions in which he would accept Jenkins’ plea essentially robbed Jenkins of a fair hearing. Riley also argued that Jenkins never should have been allowed to represent himself.
The high court ruled that Bataillon properly informed Jenkins of his rights and properly ruled that Jenkins was able to understand the proceedings against him and represent himself.
Beyond the appeal, Riley has filed a couple of motions to try to get Jenkins off of death row on the suggestion that he is severely mentally ill and, thus, incapable of being executed.
Riley noted that Corrections Department psychiatrists and psychologists have twice in the past year found that Jenkins is “psychotic, delusional, acting upon command hallucinations and is seriously mentally ill.”
Jenkins has a history of cutting himself, including his private parts, tattooing his face and carving his skin with Satan, Hitler and 666 666 (though it came out backward because he was looking into a mirror).
Riley accused Corrections Director Scott Frakes of failing to “carry out his statutory duty to notify the District Court of Douglas County of defendant’s mental illness.”
Under state law: “If any convicted person under sentence of death shall appear to be incompetent, the Director of Correctional Services shall forthwith give notice thereof to a judge of the district court of the judicial district in which the convicted person was tried and sentenced.”
A hearing on corrections’ placement of Jenkins and use of forced medications is set for August.