Amicus lector
Murderers, confession letters and mental health

If you’ve been following the case of accused mass murderer Nikko Jenkins in Omaha, perhaps you caught another interesting tidbit from today’s World Herald.

Yesterday, we learned that Mr. Jenkins wrote a mess of letters indicating that he wants to plead guilty to killing his four victims, all of whom were shot within a span of 10 days shortly after the mentally-ill man was released from prison this summer.

Today, we learned that a woman, perhaps “one of his girlfriends,” brought a letter outlining his intent to plead guilty to the killings to the courthouse in Douglas County.

The letters come in spite of the fact that prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Jenkins. Even if he pleads guilty, he’d need a second trial to determine if he’s eligible for execution.

I couldn’t help but recall two South Dakota death penalty cases while reading about Jenkins this morning.

Eric Robert came to mind first. Robert, executed just over a year ago for the murder of corrections officer Ron Johnson, wanted to plead guilty at his initial appearance. That was the day after the murder.

Eventually, we learned that Robert also wanted to die for the crime. He said so at his sentence hearing. He later challenged the authority of the South Dakota Supreme Court to delay his execution, which was done to give them time to review his conviction.

Robert’s persistence paid off for him in macabre fashion. He was executed within a year of his sentence, which is more quickly than any inmate in the modern era since Gary Gilmore in 1977.

The other case that comes to mind is that of James McVay, the confessed killer who pleaded guilty but mentally ill to the 2011 slaying of Maybelle Schein. He’s facing possible execution, as well, with a jury trial on his penalty set for early next year.

McVay, like Jenkins, claimed he was hearing voices that drove him to crime, and he wrote a letter to the Argus Leader saying as much.

In the letter, he confessed to the crime, said he’d spent a night under a bridge in Sertoma Park drinking cough syrup and whiskey and praying to Lucifer the night before killing his victim.

He and Jenkins both served time in Nebraska and were released on “good time,” a system in that state by which an inmate automatically serves half their sentence. McVay walked away from a minimum security unit in Sioux Falls in 2009, stole a truck and was captured in South Sioux City, Neb.

He served half of a grand theft sentence in Lincoln, all the while earning time for the escape conviction he’d picked up in South Dakota. Once he returned to prison in Sioux Falls, he only had a few months left. Oddly enough, he spent those months in disciplinary segregation as punishment for the 2009 escape.

There’s another thread that connects the cases here: Jenkins’ actions have called the Nebraska DOC’s policies into questions. Jenkins was an assaultive inmate who had mental health issues and shouldn’t have been released when he was, the World Herald reported.

Robert and his co-defendant Rodney Berget weren’t notably violent behind the walls, but they each were classified as maximum security inmates and they each had escape points. Even so, they had jobs as laundry orderlies that gave them access to the prison grounds and enough freedom to plot the murder and escape plan for which they’d both receive death sentences.

That they had that access in spite of escape attempts and histories of poor behavior is the subject of a lawsuit filed by Johnson’s widow, Lynette, against the state DOC.

McVay’s release from disciplinary confinement directly into a minimum security unit raised questions about the thoroughness of his mental health care and pre-release review.

He’d been treated for a series of mental issues in Nebraska. He’d also threatened to kill Vice President Joe Biden (in 2011, his plan was to kill his way to Washington, D.C. and assassinate Barack Obama). Neither of those facts stopped him from earning early release. The South Dakota DOC says it hadn’t received complete reports on McVay from Nebraska by the time his release date rolled around.

The Jenkins case, which is far messier than either South Dakota case, is still in its early stages. As one defense lawyer noted today, inmates sometimes make snap decisions about confessions, and even those on death row waver on whether to give up their appeals. Berget actually asked for a death sentence, albeit with fewer words than Robert, but then appealed his case.

Will the Jenkins case push Nebraska to alter its good time policies? Will the DOC pay closer attention to mental health services? Will he remain steadfast in his commitment to plead guilty and face a death sentence? I’ll be watching.

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