OMAHA, Neb. (AP) – The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday upheld the convictions and death sentence of a man who killed four people in Omaha, seemingly at random, shortly after his release from prison in 2013.
Nikko Jenkins pleaded no contest in 2014 to four counts of first-degree murder and multiple weapons counts for three separate, deadly attacks around Omaha. He was sentenced to death in 2017 after years of delays over concerns regarding his mental health. The high court’s opinion addressed combined direct appeals on Jenkins‘ behalf.
Among the arguments Jenkins‘ attorneys made is that the trial court abused its discretion in accepting his no-contest pleas in a death penalty case. In a no-contest plea, a defendant does not admit guilt, but concedes there is enough evidence for a conviction. The plea has the same effect as a guilty plea.
The Douglas County Public Defender office also argued that the court was wrong to allow Jenkins to represent himself and that, because it believes Jenkins is mentally ill, sentencing him to death violated the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
The state’s high court said Friday it could not find that the trial court had abused its discretion, noting that a criminal defendant has a constitutional right to conduct his or her own defense. It also found that the trial judge used expert testimony and his own interactions with Jenkins in finding him sufficiently mentally competent to understand what he was doing when he pleaded no contest to the charges.
“Evidence touching on these matters was abundant and highly conflicting,” Justice William Cassell wrote for the court. “The trial court and the sentencing panel, like the members of this court, are not medical experts. In light of the conflicting evidence, they gave weight to the expert evidence reflecting that Jenkins suffered from a personality disorder and was feigning mental illness. We find no error in that regard.”
The case centers on a spate of killings in the summer of 2013 that left Omaha residents on edge. The first came on Aug. 11, 2013, when Jenkins shot and killed Juan Uribe-Pena and Jorge Cajiga-Ruizon just 11 days after his release from prison, where he had served 10 years for two carjackings. Eight days later, Jenkins and his sister killed Curtis Bradford, a one-time prison acquaintance. Then, on Aug. 21, Jenkins pulled Andrea Kruger from her SUV as she drove home from work and shot her four times before speeding off in her vehicle.
Jenkins‘ attorney, Douglas County Public Defender Thomas Riley, said Friday that the question of Jenkins‘ mental illness is no longer up for debate. He said that since October, state prison doctors have deemed Jenkins is mentally ill and must be medicated with psychotropic drugs, “which is contrary to what some of these same doctors had said in his criminal case.”
Riley filed a motion with the district court asking it to order the director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services to comply with state law that requires him to notify the court whenever a death row inmate is found to be mental incompetent. Such notification triggers a court review to decide whether the inmate should be taken off death row, Riley said.
A hearing on that motion has been set for Aug. 12.
The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on Friday’s ruling.
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