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She sat in the courtroom and gazed at her family's killer — just as she had at trial, just as she had when the jury declared him guilty
But Monday, there was no rage in Tatiane Klein's eyes. No murmuring at him as she had during a trial in which prosecutors detailed the hanging of her 7-year-old brother, Christopher, and her mother, Jaqueline Szczepanik, and the bludgeoning death of her stepfather, Vanderlei Szczepanik.
There was resignation and, after the three-judge panel announced a life sentence for Jose “Carlos” Oliveira-Coutinho, a measure of relief.
“I have to take this and move on with my life,” Klein said. “Justice has been served.”
To some, it was an unexpected bit of justice. Several people — from court officials to prosecutors — had anticipated Oliveira-Coutinho's becoming the 12th member on Nebraska's death row for the Dec. 17, 2009, killing of the family of Brazilian missionaries in South Omaha.
They pointed to Oliveira-Coutinho's acts:
Ordering his boss bludgeoned in a dispute over pay. Binding a mother and child for an hour or more. Marching them down a darkened hallway. Hanging a mother, then her 7-year-old, after they begged for their lives. Ordering their bodies slit. Dumping them in the Missouri River.
Even Oliveira-Coutinho's defense attorneys, Horacio Wheelock and Todd Lancaster, said they were a bit surprised. Wheelock called the life sentence the “greatest achievement of my career.”
“Any time you have a child victim involved, you worry about emotion affecting the panel,” said Lancaster, who has handled other death penalty cases for the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy. “It was a tough case, but in the end, this was the right decision.”
Others questioned portions of the decision.
The three-judge panel — made up of Douglas County District Judge Thomas Otepka, Sarpy County District Judge William Zastera and District Judge Mark Kozisek of western Nebraska — agreed that the state proved six aggravating factors that would “justify the sentence of death.”
However, at least one of the three judges believed that the aggravating factors did not outweigh the factors in Oliveira-Coutinho's favor.
By law, the panel must be unanimous to sentence someone to death. Specifics weren't provided on which judge or judges were dissenters.
Douglas County prosecutors especially scratched their heads over a part of the panel's 36-page decision. At least one judge gave weight to the contention that Oliveira-Coutinho was an “accomplice in the crime — and his participation was relatively minor.”
At least one judge gave some credence to the idea that Oliveira-Coutinho “acted under unusual pressures or influences or under the domination of another.”
Those findings flew in the face of the state's case and seemed to contradict the testimony at trial. Witnesses, including Oliveira-Coutinho's wife, testified that he had recruited both of his Brazilian co-defendants to come into the United States illegally, that he acted as their crew boss and that he was the one enraged at Vanderlei Szczepanik over wage cuts.
One of the killers, Valdeir Goncalves-Santos, testified that Oliveira-Coutinho ordered Jaqueline Szczepanik and 7-year-old Christopher bound up while he drove around, used their ATM card and then scouted out a place to dump their bodies. (A third co-worker, Elias Lourenco-Batista, is suspected in the killings but was deported to Brazil before he was charged.)
The notion that Oliveira-Coutinho may have simply been an accomplice left prosecutors at a loss.
“I wouldn't use the word 'surprised' or 'disappointed,' ” Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said. “I will say this: We believed the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating ones. We expected a death sentence because we felt the evidence was so strong.”
Wheelock and Lancaster said, however, that the evidence was strong on a couple of mitigating factors in Oliveira-Coutinho's favor.
Unlike the 11 men on death row in Nebraska, Oliveira-Coutinho had virtually no criminal record, Wheelock said.
“That's huge,” Wheelock said. “That factor sets him apart from every single person on death row.”
And the attorneys suggested that there was another factor: the fact that Goncalves-Santos received, in effect, a 10-year sentence for the murders.
Nearing the end of his own trial on murder charges, Goncalves-Santos offered to testify against Oliveira-Coutinho — and prosecutors offered the equivalent of a 10-year sentence.
Goncalves-Santos then took prosecutors through the murder scene — the former Paul VI school the family was renovating in South Omaha. He detailed how they beat Vanderlei Szczepanik and how they hanged Jaqueline and 7-year-old Christopher.
Goncalves-Santos also led authorities to the spot along the Missouri River where he said he and Lourenco-Batista had slit the torsos and dumped the bodies, at Oliveira-Coutinho's command.
Wheelock argued that, unlike Goncalves-Santos, Oliveira-Coutinho had not participated in the bludgeoning, the hangings or the guttings.
“When you look at every one on death row, all of those inmates were active participants in the killing,” Wheelock said. “Carlos was not.”
Prosecutors Jim Masteller and John Alagaban had urged the panel to reject the no-blood-on-his-hands defense. They pointed to another portion of the ruling in which the three judges said they had no “lingering doubt of the defendant's guilt as to the murder of the Szczepanik family.”
A juror who convicted Oliveira-Coutinho said there was “ample evidence” of aggravating factors supporting the death penalty. But as he sat in the gallery at Monday's hearing, the juror said he wasn't surprised by the life sentence.
“One of the defendants gets 10 years and you're going to sentence the other to death?” the juror said. “I'm sure that gave the judges some pause.”
One or more of the judges also gave weight to the wishes of Klein, Jaqueline Szczepanik's daughter, according to the ruling. In a letter to the judges, Klein had detailed her excruciating loss and then concluded with this plea:
“I would like these men to be imprisoned without the possibility of parole. I do not believe in the death penalty.”
In an exclusive interview after the hearing, Klein said she hopes the life sentence leads Brazil to return Lourenco-Batista, the third co-worker, to the U.S. for trial. Brazil typically does not deport its citizens, especially to countries that have the death penalty.
Klein said her anti-death-penalty stance doesn't mean she is any less devastated by Oliveira-Coutinho's actions.
The Brazilian woman — who came to the hearing from Florida, where she now lives — said her mother, brother and stepfather treated Oliveira-Coutinho as family. In fact, in one of the videotapes of Christopher's birthday celebrations, Christopher can be seen sitting on Oliveira-Coutinho's lap.
Christopher so adored Oliveira-Coutinho that he gave him the nickname “Carlinhos.”
Translated: “Little Carlos.”
Klein said she has only one regret: That Oliveira-Coutinho won't admit his guilt.
“I don't regret writing the letter to the judges,” she said, her Portuguese translated by a friend. “He'll be 80 years old, and he'll die of old age in prison.
“I can't live with that rage anymore. If I do, I become the monster he is.”
A summary paragraph on an earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to "the hanging deaths of 7-year-old Christopher Szczepanik and his parents." Christopher and his mother were hung, but his father, Vanderlei Szczepanik, was bludgeoned to death.