A question, nearly four years in the making, will be answered today.
Life or death?
That is, should Nikko Jenkins, 30, receive life in prison or the death penalty for the savage killings of four Omahans over 10 days in 2013?
Three judges — Peter Bataillon of Omaha, Mark Johnson of the Norfolk area and Terri Harder of the Kearney area — are scheduled to announce their decision at 3 p.m. today.
To many outsiders, it may seem obvious. Execute four people? Get in line for execution yourself.
But no-brainers are virtually nonexistent in the legal world. Consider: Jose “Carlos” Oliveira-Coutinho ordered the executions of an entire family — his boss, his boss’s wife and his boss’s 7-year-old son at a vacated South Omaha school in 2009 — and he received a life sentence. That decision came in part because one judge didn’t believe that Oliveira was the ringleader of the crime.
There’s no question that Nikko Jenkins was the ringleader of the furious 10 days in 2013 that left four people dead from gunshot wounds to the head: Juan Uribe-Pena and Jorge Cajiga-Ruiz on Aug. 11, Curtis Bradford on Aug. 19 and Andrea Kruger on Aug. 21.
But Jenkins’ defense has posed plenty of questions about whether he should receive the death penalty, namely by pointing to Jenkins’ troubled mental health history and the prison system’s resistance in getting him help.
In effect, Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley has put state prison officials’ treatment (or lack thereof) of Jenkins on trial. Riley has pointed out that a psychiatrist once diagnosed Jenkins as suffering from mental illness when he was just 8. Riley argues that Jenkins’ mental illness is real — and was exacerbated by placing him in solitary confinement for more than half of his original 10-year prison sentence.
As Jenkins’ sister once put it, Nikko “is the state’s Frankenstein,” a monster the prison system created.
Prosecutors bristle at the suggestion. They note that Jenkins had a history of violent and assaultive behavior before he entered prison. Twice when he was 15 he carjacked Omahans — saying he had a gun and forcing them to drive him places. Shortly after entering prison he was a player in a violent uprising over the Fourth of July.
And prosecutors dispute that Jenkins ever suffered from a major mental illness that would have clouded his judgment. They note that Jenkins used to wear his purported schizophrenia like a badge, bragging about it — which is virtually unheard of among people who truly suffer from schizophrenia. Several state psychiatrists believe that he is feigning mental illness — and making up his claims that he was commanded to kill by a serpent god.
Sorting out who is right is the job of the judges.
A look at the crimes, the case and the life-or-death issues of State v. Jenkins:
Aug. 11, 2013: On just his 12th day after leaving a Nebraska prison, Jenkins recruited his sister Erica Jenkins and cousin Christine Bordeaux to help with a scheme: He wanted to rob bar patrons at Tquila, a nightclub at 30th and L Streets.
In an interview with police, Jenkins described the plan: “In robberies like this, you cruise the bars looking for paisos, the Mexicans. They always have big belt buckles, big cowboy boots and big hats.”
Uribe-Pena and Cajiga-Ruiz had just gotten off work and stopped at the bar.
Erica Jenkins and Bordeaux lured them to Spring Lake Park on the pretense that they would party — and the women would perform sex acts.
After Uribe-Pena and Cajiga-Ruiz arrived, Nikko Jenkins pounced. He used a 12-gauge shotgun to blow a hole in the head of Uribe-Pena as he sat in the front seat of a pickup on a dead-end road in the South Omaha park.
He then walked around to the other side of the pickup, jamming a shotgun in Cajiga-Ruiz’s face. Cajiga-Ruiz ducked, covering the side of his face with his hand.
A shot went through Cajiga-Ruiz’s hand, and his temple.
“These guys out here — they’re dead. Their families are going ‘What the (expletive) did they do? What did they do wrong?’ They did nothing. They went out on a Saturday night and had a good time.” — Omaha Police Detective Dave Schneider, during an interview with Jenkins
Aug. 19, 2013: On his 20th day as a free man, Jenkins again paired up with his sister Erica.
During a night of hanging out with Curtis Bradford — a former prisoner — the brother-sister combo hatched a plan. They’d lure Bradford on the pretense that the three were going to commit a robbery.
They gave Bradford an unloaded weapon. As the three circled a house near 18th and Clark Streets, Erica Jenkins fired a shot into the back of Bradford’s head.
Nikko Jenkins then thrust a shotgun against Bradford’s head and fired.
In his interview with police, Jenkins initially denied killing his “homeboy.”
“This is my own little homie,” Jenkins protested. “It’s on Facebook, me and him together throwing up gang signs.”
But several family members testified as to how Nikko and Erica returned from killing Bradford. Both were exhilarated after the killing, relatives said. And for a moment, Erica was infuriated.
“Erica stated it was her first murder. She expressed her frustrations of Nikko shooting Curtis after she did. It was like taking claim for her first kill.” — cousin Brian Easterling, recounting the siblings’ feud
Aug. 21, 2013: On his 22nd day of freedom, Jenkins had an ill-formed plan: steal a car so he and relatives could rob people attending a Lil Wayne concert in downtown Omaha.
So Jenkins, sister Erica, cousin Bordeaux and uncle Warren Levering headed to west Omaha.
There they spotted 33-year-old Andrea Kruger in the drive-thru of a McDonald’s. Kruger had just finished her work shift at a bar and was on her way home to her husband and three kids.
As she drove home near 168th and Fort Streets, Erica Jenkins pulled in front of her, blocking Kruger’s SUV. Jenkins and Levering spilled out of the car, thrust a 9 mm semiautomatic rifle in Kruger’s face, pulled her from the vehicle and shot her four times as she pleaded for her life.
“A 33-year-old gal with three kids. ... She didn’t deserve that, Nikko. ...Why? Why? Just one day I’d like to tell the family that. Why? Why her?” — Douglas County Sheriff’s Sgt. John Pankonin, questioning Jenkins in a police interview
The defense against death
Jenkins’ response to Pankonin encapsulates part of the defense’s argument against the death penalty.
Pressed as to why he killed, Jenkins said: “I need to talk to (Kruger’s husband, Michael-Ryan Kruger). When this case opens up and he sees those facts, he’s not going to hate me or anyone else. You know who he’s going to be angry with? Those officials — Nebraska Department of Corrections — who (didn’t get) me proper treatment.”
Translated, Riley — Jenkins’ attorney — argues that Jenkins’ prison treatment has exacerbated his mental illness.
And the defense suggests that Jenkins’ mental illness — which Riley labels “severe” — should be a mitigating factor that spares Jenkins the death penalty.
Riley argued that Jenkins’ case falls under two mitigating factors:
- The crimes were “committed while the offender was under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance.”
- “The capacity of the defendant to appreciate the wrongfulness of his or her conduct ... was impaired as a result of mental illness, mental defect or intoxication.”
Additionally, Riley argued that the judges should find that Jenkins has lost his sanity since the killings, again in part due to his continual jailing in solitary confinement.
Riley noted that the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986 prohibited “inflicting the penalty of death upon a prisoner who is insane.”
“We do not execute the mentally ill,” Riley wrote. “Jenkins’ mental illness is not one of choice. It is of long-standing duration and exacerbated by significant time in solitary confinement while continuously incarcerated for the 10-plus years prior to these homicides.”
Riley closed his argument by pointing to the Oliveira case and three other triple-homicide cases where the killers received life sentences.
“We request the court take particular notice of those cases with multiple homicides wherein the defendants did not receive the death penalty.”
Prosecutors' pursuit of death
Jenkins’ perceived mistreatment in prison isn’t mitigation for his actions afterward, prosecutors argue.
Prosecutors pointed to records “replete” with threats by Jenkins to harm others if he didn’t get his way in prison.
As Jenkins told police after the killings: “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. ... You know I told them that? I told them.”
That attitude amounts to clear-minded motive for murder, showing a logical thought process, even if it is diabolical, prosecutors argue.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine pointed out that case law indicates that a defendant must suffer from mental illness so “extreme” that it “rendered him unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions.”
“The state would highlight the alarming amount of homicidal and violent threats made by the defendant (in prison), but would also point out that many of these were accompanied by demands,” Kleine wrote. “A defendant should not be able to create a reason to necessitate some sort of segregation by consistently disregarding Corrections rules, being a disturbance and acting in a violent manner but then request leniency (because) of his own actions.”
In their research of other Nebraska death penalty cases, Kleine and a deputy county attorney, Katie Benson, said they could find none that matched the brutality of “the case at hand, wherein one defendant randomly murders four people ... over a 10-day period.”
Prosecutors closed their argument by citing language from a Nebraska Supreme Court ruling upholding a death sentence for a man who killed a 3-year-old child.
“The depravity shown from these facts stands out and sets this case apart from other Nebraska cases where the death sentence was not imposed. It shows a mind so bereft of redemption that justice demands a sentence of death.”