I’ve sat at this keyboard for 30 minutes trying to compose a compelling opening sentence to get you to read what I have to say. I don’t know how to begin! What I have to say is a simple and heartfelt corrective to misconceptions and an injustice I have perpetuated (however unintentionally). Please hear me out!
Virtually everyone in our family knows that our cousin (my first cousin’s son, Pete) has been incarcerated in Nebraska for the past 41 years, 23 of which were on death-row. I reached out to Pete a couple of months ago and we began a mutually satisfying email correspondence. All this came to an abrupt halt after I shared with Pete two blog posts I had written a few years ago in opposition to the death penalty. I had referenced him with the presumption of his guilt.
Pete politely but curtly asked that I give him the courtesy of not contacting him again. I had no clue of the pain my naively well-intentioned posts had caused him. We have had no correspondence since.
I had never taken a close look at the evidence in Pete’s case or the specifics surrounding his conviction. His trial was conducted just as I was preparing to enter the Jesuit novitiate in 1978. That was the last time I have lived in Nebraska. But I do not mean these as an excuse. The truth is I remained blissfully ignorant of the facts, “bought” the findings of the jury trial and placed unfettered confidence in the veracity our judicial system. I was wrong to make these presumptions.
Over the last couple weeks I have taken a much closer look. I’ve concluded that Pete’s conviction was the result of a legal system desperate to wrap-up an unsolved two-year old murder case, an unscrupulous assistant county attorney, nefarious interference by the victim’s family, and the contrived testimony of a key witness manipulated by fear and a desire to save his own ass. I now believe Pete is not guilty and wish to correct the falsehoods I have presumed and spread over the years.
I come to this conclusion for various reasons. Here are a few that I found compelling:
Pete had inadequate legal representation from the start. Though he benefitted from the skillful defense of Dave Lathrop (counsel to the other man charged with the murder) after the cases were combined for purposes of trial. Pete’s court appointed attorney was inept and would later be arrested and convicted of drug offenses and child molestation.
The so-called “testimony” of the prosecution’s key witness had been thrown out as tainted, “poisoned” or otherwise unreliable by the judge in evidentiary hearings prior to the trial. It was reinstated by the Nebraska Supreme Court in what appears to me as an internally contradictory argument.
Subsequent appeals by court appointed attorneys were urgently and understandably focused on protecting Pete from imposition of his death sentence rather than digging into the case for further exonerating evidence.
Advocates for those unjustly imprisoned have for decades shown special interest in Pete’s case. My review of the facts was greatly assisted and inspired by New York writer and advocate, Doug Magee. He has poured over Pete’s case for more than thirty-years and comprehends the facts, and untruths, like no other. I owe him a special debt of gratitude for kindly but clearly correcting my ignorance.
In early 2014 the Innocence Project of Nebraska, the state affiliate of the highly successful national Innocence Project, agreed to take Pete’s case. Even though there is no DNA evidence (a mandate for their advocacy), evidence of Pete’s innocence was simply too compelling for the Project to ignore.
So what do I believe? I believe Pete was framed! The victim had his enemies. He was known for shady deals and had even done time in federal prison for a kickback deal. There was talk in the media of a hit-man from Phoenix in town around the time of the murder. I’ve concluded that this — combined with an unscrupulous prosecuting attorney, the manufactured and coerced lies of the key “witness”, and the illegal and corrupt dealings of a private detective hired by the victim’s family (their third) — is a much more reasonable explanation to the murder than the travesty of justice seen in the Pete’s trial. I believe Pete was scapegoated by an unscrupulous legal system that wanted a conviction — any conviction — to close a high profile murder case from its books.
So what now? Well, first of all, we need to know the truth. Scripture says, “The truth shall set you free.” Well, what do you think? Does it? Our 64 year-old cousin has been incarcerated for more than 40 years for something I no longer believe he did. Will the truth set Pete free? If not, how truly “free” are the rest of us?
Please remember this story as you would all significant family stories! I ask all of our Nebraska relatives and friends to be especially vigilant. Learn the truth. Speak the truth. Correct falsehood. Decry every injustice that would be perpetuated in our name.
And, of course, share this message with any others you think would be interested in it or have a need to know.