LINCOLN — An inmate who has been in prison 40 years for an Omaha murder could be released by next year under a rare commutation granted this week.
The case marked only the third time in the past 23 years that the State Board of Pardons has commuted a life sentence for first-degree murder.
Laddie Dittrich, 67, was one of three men convicted in the 1973 slaying of John Wisotzkey in Omaha.
Wisotzkey, a 47-year-old trucking company official, had gotten into an argument with a prostitute over money. When he fled in his vehicle, Dittrich and others chased after him in their car, running Wisotzkey off Interstate 480 at about 24th Street.
The men took Wisotzkey's wallet, beat him, then stabbed him to death with a bayonet.
Testimony at Tuesday's meeting of the Pardons Board indicated that Dittrich participated in the beating but was not involved in stabbing the victim to death.
Members of the Pardons Board, which includes the governor, attorney general and secretary of state, cited fairness in their decision to commute Dittrich's sentence from life in prison with no possibility of parole, to 80 years in prison to life. The change makes him eligible for parole.
The two other men convicted of murder with Dittrich were released from prison years ago, they said.
Dittrich, according to Gov. Dave Heineman, could have been released 20 to 25 years ago had he not been convicted of escape.
Dittrich walked away from a prison halfway house in Lincoln in 1981, just after being told he was losing his trusty status and would be returning to prison.
State corrections Director Bob Houston, who was called to testify at Dittrich's hearing, said the department was partly to blame. He said an inmate convicted of first-degree murder should never have been allowed to participate so soon in a work-release program. More professional guidelines have since been adopted by the department, Houston said.
But while supporters of Dittrich called on the board for his immediate release, the governor and others questioned if he was immediately ready for life outside prison walls.
They noted that he has had seven misconduct reports in the past five years and had been recommended by the State Parole Board to take a one-year prison class in anger management. Heineman, as well as others, said Dittrich needed time to transition back into society, and he urged the Parole Board to take the time for such programming.
“I can't imagine being locked up that long, but we have to provide for public safety,” the governor said.
Attorney General Jon Bruning said he had met with Dittrich at the State Penitentiary and found him to be “a very serene guy” who was committed to Native American religion. Dittrich, a Native American, has performed sweat lodge and other Lakota ceremonies while in prison.
Two judges, including the one who sentenced Dittrich, recommended that he be released, Bruning said. Secretary of State John Gale said Dittrich fits his criteria for commuting a murder sentence, which includes serving a long time in prison first.
Esther Casmer, head of the Parole Board, said the board would set up a plan for Dittrich to slowly readjust to live outside of prison.
The Pardons Board voted 3-0 to commute his sentence. That means that Dittrich would be eligible for parole as early as May 30. But Casmer and other officials said it could be a year or more before he's released.
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