LINCOLN — The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday upheld the death sentence of a prison inmate who admitted that he killed his cellmate, then told a corrections officer afterward that he would “kill again” if he weren’t sentenced to death.
Patrick Schroeder was already serving a life sentence for the 2006 slaying of a Pawnee County farmer when he was charged, and convicted, of choking his cellmate to death at the Tecumseh State Prison in 2017.
“If given another life term, I will kill again and we will be right back in court doing this all over again,” Schroeder wrote in a statement shortly after cellmate Terry Berry was found unconscious in their cell. Berry was pronounced dead four days later at a Lincoln hospital.
On Friday, the Supreme Court considered the automatic appeal granted to all inmates who receive the death sentence.
Schroeder, now 42, served as his own attorney during his trial for the murder of Berry, a 22-year-old who was placed in a solitary confinement cell designed for one inmate over Schroeder’s objections.
Berry was within two weeks of his release on a conviction for second-degree forgery, but Schroeder opposed being paired with him, calling him unsanitary and “a loudmouth, a punk,” who would not quit talking. Schroeder told his jailers that “something was going to happen” unless Berry was moved out of his cell.
At his trial, Schroeder submitted no evidence in his defense, or in opposition to prosecutors’ arguments that he deserved the death penalty.
But attorneys appointed to present his automatic appeal objected to the imposition of the death penalty, saying that the three-judge panel that sentenced him to death ignored mitigating circumstances, such as Schroeder’s dysfunctional childhood and the undue pressure caused by pairing him with a cellmate he detested.
Sarah Newell of the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy also argued that the state had an ulterior motive for seeking the death penalty — “to avoid and detract” from possible civil liability for placing two incompatible inmates in a cell designed for one prisoner.
Prosecutors with the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office, meanwhile, argued that Schroeder was not under “unusual” pressure, but acted to kill Berry out of “displeasure,” and that his actions were “deliberate” and “pretty cold-blooded.”
The three-judge panel that sentenced Schroeder to death ruled that while he “expressly welcomed” the death penalty, “it is the law, and not his wishes, that compels this panel’s ultimate conclusion.”
The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Judge Jeffrey Funke, said that even though a corrections officer had a “gut feeling” that Berry was in danger by being placed with Schroeder and had even tried to get the assignment reversed, Schroeder made no formal request that Berry be removed and did not indicate that his cellmate was in “mortal danger.”
In comparing the case with other death penalty cases, the court found that it was similar to the case of David Dunster, who was serving a life sentence for two murders when he killed his cellmate and was sentenced to die. While the two cases are not “a color match,” they were sufficiently similar to justify the death sentence for Schroeder, Funke wrote.
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