LINCOLN — The Nebraska Supreme Court heard arguments Thursday that condemned killer Nikko Jenkins’ convictions should be overturned because of his severe mental illness.
Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley said the lower court erred when ruling that Jenkins was competent to stand trial, competent to defend himself at trial and able to knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently plead no contest to the charges against him.
The three-judge panel that subsequently sentenced Jenkins to death ignored his lifelong history of serious mental illness and the “debilitating effects” of being held for years in solitary confinement, Riley said.
“This whole case should be reversed,” Riley told the high court. “If you don’t, the death penalty should be reversed.”
But Solicitor General James D. Smith defended Jenkins’ death sentence and his convictions on four counts of first-degree murder and related firearms charges.
He argued that the state high court should defer to Douglas County District Judge Peter Bataillon, who heard the evidence and interacted with Jenkins during a tumultuous three years of court proceedings.
“We have more evidence of Mr. Jenkins trying to fake, trying to malinger, trying control things to avoid the consequences of his actions,” Smith said.
Jenkins, now 32, shot and killed four people over 10 days in 2013. His victims were: Juan Uribe-Pena and Jorge Cajiga-Ruiz on Aug. 11, Curtis Bradford on Aug. 19 and Andrea Kruger on Aug. 21.
The first deaths occurred 12 days after Jenkins was released from prison. He had spent more than half of his 10½-year prison sentence in solitary confinement.
The two sides argued before the state high court Thursday as part of the first appeal of Jenkins’ convictions and sentence.
Riley focused his time on whether the lower court had properly considered Jenkins’ mental state, from the start of his trial through the pronouncement of his death sentence.
“This case is the inevitable result of a festering issue that we’ve been dealing with, which is the confluence of the mental health and the criminal justice system,” Riley said.
He cited a long line of mental health professionals who had diagnosed Jenkins with severe mental illness, starting at age 8. Riley argued that illness affected Jenkins’ competency to stand trial, let alone defend himself and decide to plead no contest.
But, Riley said, the lower court erred by relying on testimony from prison psychiatrists, who “have a history of hiding diagnoses,” and Lincoln Regional Center psychiatrists, who “had reason to skew their views” because they didn’t want him at their hospital.
He pointed out that Bataillon found Jenkins competent to defend himself all the way through his no contest pleading, only to rule six months later that he was not competent to proceed with the death penalty phase of the trial. The judge also ordered Jenkins to be represented by the public defender again at that stage of the case.
Appeals Court Judge Riko Bishop, sitting in on the case, questioned Smith about the change in competency determination. She asked whether the change called into question the rulings earlier in the trial.
Smith cited a portion of the trial transcript in which Bataillon said the death penalty phase raises the level of concern. Smith said the judge found Jenkins incompetent at that stage “in an abundance of caution.”
Smith argued that the high court should let the lower court’s rulings stand on whether Jenkins could represent himself and offer a plea.
The court also received a friend-of-the-court brief from American Civil Liberties Union Foundation attorneys on behalf of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, National Disability Rights Network and nine mental health professionals.
In the brief, they argued that long-term solitary confinement should be considered as a mitigating factor in death penalty cases.
“Solitary confinement poured gasoline on the flames of Mr. Jenkins’ mental illness, trapping him in a vicious cycle that ensured he would remain in isolation,” they said. “Over time, he suffered self-harm, counterproductive behavior, and permanent mental and physical harm.”