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Nebraska moving forward with execution plans for Norfolk killer Jose Sandoval

Nebraska's attorney general has chosen Norfolk killer Jose Sandoval as the next condemned prisoner to die, after a 20-year hiatus in executions in this state.

No request to the Nebraska Supreme Court for an execution warrant has been made, but Corrections Director Scott Frakes served notice to Sandoval on Thursday of the lethal injection drugs that would be administered to cause his death if an execution takes place. 

That combination of drugs chosen has never been used in an execution.

State regulations require the prisons chief to notify condemned inmates 60 days prior to the attorney general requesting an execution warrant. 

Attorney General Doug Peterson said he is prepared to request the Supreme Court issue Sandoval's execution warrant after at least 60 days have elapsed from the notice.

Corrections officials have chosen a new protocol for administering lethal injection drugs and have purchased diazepam, fentanyl citrate, cisatracuriam besylate and potassium chloride. 

The drugs were purchased in the United States and received into the department's inventory Oct. 10, said Dawn-Renee Smith, spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.

She would not name the company or suppliers from which they were purchased, or say whether the supplier was local or a compounding company. The Journal Star is pursuing the answers to those and other questions.

Nevada has a similar drug protocol, but uses three drugs: fentanyl, diazepam and cisatracurium. That protocol is in question after a judge said Wednesday she may cut a paralytic (cisatracurium) from the state’s previously untried lethal injection plan, after hearing that it could mask movements reflecting awareness and pain, according to The Associated Press.

The Nebraska department has tested its drugs for quality, according to a Corrections news release.

Sandoval, 38, is housed on death row at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution. He was convicted and sentenced to death 13 years ago for killing five people at the U.S. Bank branch in Norfolk in September 2002. 

Nebraska's 11 death row inmates

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, a longtime opponent of the death penalty, said in spite of the notice he doubted an execution was going to be carried out any time soon.

He and others need to know where the drugs came from, and whether there was a private compounding company manufacturing them, he said. 

Other issues that have to be resolved, he said, include whether or not this combination of drugs has been used anywhere else, even though that would not bind Nebraska; whether or not the combination of drugs would be effective in accomplishing an execution; and whether they were designed to be used to take someone's life.

The Associated Press reported in April that a German pharmaceutical company spokesman said the potassium chloride the Nebraska Corrections Department had purchased in 2015 was not intended to be sold to a state corrections department. A distributor had tried unsuccessfully to get the department to return the drugs.

The fact that the department is withholding certain information, Chambers said, indicates it is not fully transparent and may feel there are weaknesses in what it is doing.

Chambers charged that the notice of intended execution drugs is timed to coincide with Gov. Pete Ricketts re-election campaign. 

Ricketts responded, saying: "Last year the people of Nebraska reaffirmed that the death penalty remains an important part of protecting public safety in our state."

Thursday's announcement is the next step to carrying out the sentences ordered by the court, he said. 

ACLU of Nebraska Executive Director Danielle Conrad said the organization was “horrified" that the department planned to use Sandoval as a "test subject for an untested and experimental lethal injection cocktail."

"This rash decision will not fix the problems with Nebraska’s broken death penalty and are a distraction from the real issues impacting Nebraska’s Department of Corrections: an overcrowded, crisis-riddled system," she said.

America is a nation turning away from the death penalty, Conrad said, with more and more states seeing that ending capital punishment means improving public safety. Fiscal conservatives, faith leaders and public safety officials are increasingly leading efforts to replace the death penalty.

“The ACLU will continue to discuss the state’s misguided plan with experts locally and nationally and evaluate the grave constitutional, legal and policy questions associated with this untested protocol,” she said.

The attorney general said in a statement he agrees with the notice that was given to Sandoval.

"Sandoval planned the Sept. 26, 2002, Norfolk bank robbery when, in less than a minute, five innocent people were brutally shot and killed," Peterson said in a news release.

The dead included bank employees and customers. Sandoval personally killed three people, two more people were killed, and three more were in the midst of the gunfire that day. Sandoval’s crimes were captured on video.

The Nebraska Supreme Court upheld Sandoval’s convictions and death sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court then denied further review of the sentence. Sandoval never filed any challenges to the Supreme Court decisions, Peterson said.

The last execution in Nebraska was Robert Williams in December 1997. It was carried out using the electric chair. 

Clue, Wiffle Ball, paper airplane enter Toy Hall of Fame

The board game Clue. In the National Toy Hall of Fame. With the Wiffle Ball and paper airplane.

The mystery of which toys earned the status of toy superstardom was solved Thursday with the announcement of the hall of fame's Class of 2017.

The whodunit game Clue, where players also must name the crime scene and murder weapon, continues to sell millions of copies each year since being patented by a British couple during World War II.

"Clue has also had its own movie, been featured in numerous television shows and books and remains an icon of pop culture," said curator Nicolas Ricketts, who added that the game has spun off travel, junior and advanced versions, as well as collector's and themed editions.

The annual hall of fame inductees are chosen on the advice of historians and educators following a process that begins with nominations from the public.

To make the cut, toys must have inspired creative play across generations. Historic and modern versions of the winners are displayed in the hall, which is located inside The Strong museum in Rochester, New York.

This year's other finalists were: the game Risk, Magic 8 Ball, Matchbox cars, My Little Pony, PEZ candy dispenser, play food, sand, Transformers and the card game Uno.

Like Clue, the Wiffle Ball remains a big seller more than six decades after it was invented by a retired semi-pro baseball player in Connecticut whose son had given up on regular backyard baseball for lack of space and too many broken windows.

David Mullany began by cutting holes in round plastic parts from a factory, eventually developing a ball with eight oblong slots that allow the ball to grab air and change and slow its trajectory. A strike-out was called a "wiff," according to the family-owned Wiffle Ball Inc., which has produced millions of balls each year ever since.

Some initially pegged the lightweight ball as a fad, said Stephen Mullany, who with his brother represent the third generation to run the company. He credits its ability to level the playing field despite players' ages and ability with helping to keep it around.

"Here we are 60-plus years later," Mullany said, "so it's pretty neat."

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Former Lincoln police officer facing sex assault charge released from jail

A former Lincoln police officer who left the department under the cloud of a sexual assault allegation made his first court appearance Thursday by video from jail.

Gregory Cody, 54, wore blue jail clothes and said little in the brief hearing. 

The prosecutor, Dan Zieg, read the charges to Cody, who said he understood. He bonded out of jail soon after.

A day earlier, the Lancaster County attorney’s office filed a warrant for Cody's arrest on a charge of first-degree sexual assault of a person mentally or physically incapable of resisting. He is accused of using his position of authority to coerce a mentally ill woman into a sexual relationship that lasted more than a year.

Cody’s attorney, John Ball, said Cody turned himself in at the jail 45 minutes after being told of the warrant and wasn’t a flight risk. 

“The allegations he strongly disputes,” Ball said in court Thursday, arguing for a $50,000 bond.

He said Cody no longer is a police officer — he retired as a result of the allegations — and is not a danger to the community. 

Zieg asked for a $250,000 bond, saying the alleged assaults happened numerous times and that Cody "was in a position of power and authority over her as a police officer.” It's charged as an aggravated offense, he said.

Lancaster County Judge Timothy Phillips set bond at $150,000 and ordered Cody to have no contact with his accuser. Cody needed to pay 10 percent, or $15,000, to be released from jail.

His family went directly to the clerk’s office to post his bond, and he was released by 4:30 p.m.

In a nine-page affidavit, a Nebraska State Patrol investigator said Cody's accuser, a 30-year-old Lincoln woman, described more than a year's worth of interactions with Cody, including about 50 incidents of sexual encounters that she described as forced, most of which occurred while he was on duty.

She said it began in July 2016, after Cody released her from custody rather than take her into emergency protective custody and said she would "owe him." 

According to court records, she had told several friends, health care workers and at least one Lincoln police sergeant and one officer she was being stalked and abused by an officer before any formal investigation began.

The police department placed Cody on unpaid administrative leave Oct. 18. He retired two days later and will receive about $1,965 per month through his pension with the city. Some of that money he contributed himself; some was matched by the city.

Another officer was put on unpaid, investigative suspension and soon resigned.

Police have not released that officer's name, but a personnel change-in-status form shows Joseph Keiser resigned Oct. 30 from the Lincoln Police Department after being placed on unpaid investigative suspension.

Court records say Cody's accuser had told an unnamed officer that she was being sexually assaulted by a Lincoln police officer who had threatened to have her put in emergency protective custody if she didn't comply. She told him it was Cody.

The officer told her how to report the allegation to Internal Affairs and suggested she contact the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office or Nebraska State Patrol. But he didn't come forward to anyone in the police department until after Chief Jeff Bliemeister sent an internal memo that Cody was being investigated.

Courtesy photo 

Gregory S. Cody

Courtesy photo 

Jose Sandoval was convicted with Jorge Galindo and Erick Vela of shooting and killing Lisa Bryant, Lola Elwood, Samuel Sun, Jo Mausbach and Evonne Tuttle in a botched attempted bank robbery in Norfolk in 2002.

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Lancaster County's detention center won't get more staff but can turn kids away if full

Lancaster County's juvenile detention center can't hire additional staff to handle overcrowding spikes but can turn young people away if it's full, a divided Lancaster County Board decided Thursday.

The decision followed weeks of discussion about crowding issues at the Lancaster County Youth Services Center and Thursday turned into a heated debate about how the county and state work together.

The county runs the detention center, but state probation is responsible for placing teens once they’ve been through the juvenile court system. A majority of young people in the detention center are waiting placement in treatment or therapeutic settings.

The debate highlights the difficulty of finding such placements for young people — primarily with private providers outside Lincoln that can choose not to accept young people or can send them back to detention if they violate rules.

A juvenile justice steering committee made up of judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys, state human services workers and law enforcement officials asked to advise the County Board on the issue overwhelmingly said there’s a need for more group homes or therapeutic placements for young people.

“That’s where we’re at now,” said Deputy County Attorney Bruce Prenda. “The supply clearly cannot meet the demand.”

Committee members also said they would prefer expanding the number of beds in an existing shelter run by Cedars Youth Services rather than relying more heavily on using the detention center, but did not want the center to turn children away.

Tonya Peters, an assistant city attorney and legal counsel for the Lincoln Police Department, said the elephant in the room is the need for consistent funding so providers can keep enough beds available even if they’re not always full.

The County Board began debating the issue when Sheli Schindler, director of the detention center, asked for permission to hire five additional employees to staff an additional unit for high-risk boys. While the center has empty beds for low-risk boys and girls, the unit for high-risk boys has been full on various occasions over the past months.

If the board did not want to hire more staff, Schindler said she needs the authority to turn away teens when the units they’d be placed in are full. The contract between the state and county allows the detention center to do that, but so far that hasn’t happened, because juvenile justice officials are reluctant to turn young people away.

While the board voted unanimously not to hire additional staff — something members said goes against the overarching goal of reducing the number of juveniles in detention — it was split on whether to allow Schindler to enforce the contract and say no when the center is full. That measure narrowly passed: Commissioners Todd Wiltgen, Deb Schorr and Bill Avery voted to allow it; Roma Amundson and Jennifer Brinkman voted against it.

Schindler told the board she needs the ability to enforce the existing contract to maintain a safe environment.

But Brinkman said she didn’t want to “stick a finger in the eye” of state probation by authorizing the detention center to turn kids away, taking a defensive position instead of working collaboratively.

Schindler said the relationship has to go both ways, and said it wasn't her intent when she requested additional staff.

“I care about the kids. I’ve devoted 25 years of my life to those kids,” she said. “That view of my actions is, frankly, insulting.”

Wiltgen said allowing Schindler to enforce the contract isn’t intended to turn kids away, but to give detention center officials a management tool that will force the state to find placements more quickly.

“I’m saying ‘no’ because it’s a way to get to ‘yes,’” he said.

Lori Griggs, the chief probation officer in Lancaster County, said detaining juveniles in another city would cause problems for families and complicate local court proceedings. 

“That’s a world we’ve never gone to before,” Griggs said. “I would hate to see that happening.”

The number of young people in detention has decreased dramatically over the past few years, she said, and delays in getting young people placed happen for a variety of reasons. 

“We talk about this daily,” she said. “We are constantly working on it. We don’t just sit there.”

Although the detention center has room for 60 youth, staffing levels have decreased because fewer juveniles are put in detention. The average daily population at the center each month this year has ranged from 27 to 41. Schindler said she staffs for about 30, but total numbers might be down when individual units are full.

In deciding not to hire additional detention center staff, County Board members said they want to continue to work to find additional placements for young people, and asked that probation and county justice officials work more closely together.

“What we need to focus on is finding additional ways to find services,” Amundson said.