Why Nikko Jenkins was out on the street and not behind bars

Appearing at a press conference Wednesday to discuss the Nikko Jenkins case were, from left, Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, Police Chief Todd Schmaderer and Douglas County Sheriff Tim Dunning.

The idea that Nikko Jenkins might be a danger was as plain to see as the tattoos on his face.

In his 10½ years in prison, he committed at least three assaults — including an attack on a prison guard — that led to two felony convictions.

He tried to escape. He made a knife out of a toilet brush. He twice was written up for “tattoo activity.”

He proclaimed the prison yard his gang turf — and incited a riot. He repeatedly was placed in the “hole” — solitary confinement — and he repeatedly told corrections officers he was a danger.

"Jenkins has consistently expressed having ongoing homicidal ideations," his Tecumseh State Prison case manager wrote in an October 2011 report.

Yet in the end, Jenkins got out in 10½ years — exactly half of the 21-year sentence he was given for two carjackings he committed when he was 15 and two assaults that occurred while he was an inmate.

And now, authorities allege, Jenkins made good on those homicidal ideas.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine charged Jenkins on Wednesday with four counts of first-degree murder in the Aug. 21 slaying of Andrea Kruger, the Aug. 19 slaying of Curtis Bradford and the Aug. 11 slayings of Jorge Cajiga-Ruiz and Juan Uribe-Pena.

Jenkins — who had a history of threats, claims of mental illness and erratic behavior — was released from prison July 30.

Court and corrections records obtained exclusively by The World-Herald show three factors could have — some say should have — kept Jenkins behind bars well past July 30.

Factor 1: bad prison behavior

Except in certain cases such as first-degree murder and gun crimes, Nebraska law dictates that every inmate receive one day credit for one day served.

In effect, the law calls for inmates to serve half of the sentence a judge announces — unless they lose good-time credits because of bad behavior.

Critics say the Jenkins case shows how difficult it is for prisoners to lose good-time credit.

From 2005 to 2011, prison records show, Jenkins was written up at least eight times for refusing to submit to a search, aggravated assault on a corrections officer, three episodes of using threatening language, two episodes of “tattoo activities” and creating a weapon out of a toilet brush.

For the attack on the prison guard, Jenkins lost three months of good time.

In all, he lost about 17½ months of good time.

Sgt. John Wells, head of the Omaha Police Union, called Jenkins the poster child of “why Nebraska's good-time law is a farce.”

Wells said Jenkins should have been behind bars serving his full 21-year sentence.

“If someone like this doesn't lose all of his good time, who does?” Wells asked. “It's shameful. It's unconscionable.”

Corrections officials said they could not discuss Jenkins' prison record because of state laws governing prisoner privacy. State Corrections Director Robert Houston declined to comment Wednesday on Jenkins or on corrections policies.

Jenkins' prison records show that corrections workers were well aware that Jenkins was a powder keg.

In a detailed October 2011 report, a corrections case manager detailed Jenkins' menacing behavior:

» On July 4, 2005, Jenkins and others caused a “riot situation” in the yard at an Omaha prison for young men. Jenkins “ignored and evaded staff for 10 minutes in order to re-engage in attacks on other inmates,” according to the report.

» In 2006, Jenkins, reportedly a Crip, received a misconduct report for gang activities.

» In January 2007, he assaulted another inmate, who needed nine stitches to the inside of his upper lip.

» In February 2007, he was involved in an attack in the shower at the Lincoln Correctional Center, repeatedly punching a rival inmate with his fist and a lock.

» In January 2009, he was caught with the toilet-brush shank.

Then came the attack on a Tecumseh corrections officer. On Dec. 17, 2009, corrections officials authorized Jenkins to go on furlough to his grandmother's funeral at First United Methodist Church in Omaha.

According to the caseworker's report:

On the ride to Omaha, Jenkins began murmuring about his childhood. After dropping out of the sixth grade, Jenkins committed his first robberies at 15, carjacking two women.

Once he got to the church, Jenkins asked to use the bathroom. Officers uncuffed his hands and then tried to cuff one back to his restraint belt.

Jenkins pulled back his hands. He told the officers they needed to walk away because his “boys would shoot up the place and it would be a bloodbath.”

Jenkins then tried to walk out. Officers blocked the door.

He “began to unbutton his shirt, as if preparing to fight.” Officers grabbed him — and Jenkins punched one of the officers in the face.

Jenkins began yelling to family members. At that point, one of his sisters “joined in and assaulted a staff member.”

Corrections officers subdued him, placed him in the van and, with a police escort, returned him to Tecumseh.

Jenkins ended up in a segregated unit — solitary confinement — a designation that he consistently complained about.

The caseworker, who had overseen Jenkins for three years, wrote that “Jenkins made comments to staff that he is a dangerous individual and is not very stable at this point.

Jenkins attempts to manipulate other inmates into misbehaviors to help his 'causes' ... (and) has no regard for authority.”

At some point, staffers recommended that he be transferred out, but officials decided against it after consulting with prison mental health practitioners.

“The reason was that inmate Jenkins has consistently expressed having ongoing homicidal ideations and has indicated that his past gang life will haunt him when he gets out,” the caseworker concluded.

Factor 2: jail credit

At his sentencing for the attack on the corrections officer, the judge, prosecutors and a defense attorney argued over whether Jenkins should get jail credit. Douglas County District Judge Gary Randall gave Jenkins 513 days' credit.

Had Jenkins not been given the credit, he likely would not have been released until late 2014.

Factor 3: habitual criminal status

In the attack on the corrections officer, prosecutors filled out a charging document that would have tagged Jenkins as a habitual criminal. Such a designation could have meant a mandatory minimum 10 additional years in prison.

However, prosecutors dropped the charging document after Jenkins agreed to plead no contest to felony assault of an officer. Prosecutors also dropped an attempted escape charge punishable by 10 months in prison.

Kleine, the Douglas County attorney, said he is reviewing the decision to drop the habitual criminal tag. The prosecutor who made it is now a judge.

Under case law, Kleine said, a habitual criminal charge usually requires a defendant to have gone in and out of prison twice before committing a third crime. Jenkins never left prison.

“There's a question of whether he would have qualified,” Kleine said. “We're looking at that.”

Authorities said the public has a right to scrutinize whether Jenkins should have been released.

State Sen. Brad Ashford, chairman of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, said the debate has to be aired against the backdrop of the costs of building new prisons. He noted that judges know that their sentences are cut in half — and usually have the latitude to impose longer sentences.

Corrections officials alerted local authorities about Jenkins' release, Ashford said. After Jenkins sent erratic letters to two judges in the month before his release, sheriff's officials sent an email to courthouse deputies asking them to keep a lookout for Jenkins at the courthouse.

“He was a very bad guy,” Ashford said. “We knew he was a bad guy in prison. We notified (police) and the (sheriff) he was getting out. He served his sentence. If his sentence was (longer), he would have gotten out then and done the same thing.”

Wells suggested that none of the victims — with the possible exception of Bradford, who met Jenkins in prison — would have been in Jenkins' path.

Wells, who helped arrest Jenkins at age 16 for the carjacking, bristled at the thought that police officers should be expected to watch every move of a man who “should have still been in prison.”

“Did anyone in corrections act on Jenkins' repeated proclamations that he was homicidal?” Wells asked. “Did anyone look at the wisdom of giving good time to a prisoner who has committed not one but two felony assaults?

“You have people snuffed out in the prime of their lives and countless family members affected by this. They can look at the laws of the state of Nebraska and definitely ask, “What if?' ”

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