Randy Reeves was a 24-year-old construction worker when he killed two women in Lincoln in 1980. He was 60 when he died Wednesday night at the Nebraska State Penitentiary.
Reeves spent 20 years on death row for the stabbing deaths of Janet Mesner and Vicki Lamm.
He came within two days of dying in the electric chair in 1999 and was sentenced in 2001 to two life terms after the Nebraska Supreme Court reversed itself and said he was improperly resentenced to death on appeal in 1991.
The case drew national attention because families of both victims became outspoken opponents of the death penalty.
The Mesner children and Reeves grew up in the same, close-knit Quaker community in Central City after Don and Barbara Reeves took him in as a foster child.
"If she (Janet) were alive, I think she would have applauded the decision," her brother Kurt Mesner said in 2001 when prosecutors chose not to seek the death penalty again. "It's what should have been done from the start."
Vicki Lamm's husband, Gus Lamm of Portland, Oregon, agreed, saying at the time, "It's not about winning or losing. We're just a bunch of survivors in this one. Now there's an end."
But some of Lamm's relatives, including her brother, Greg Zessin of Malcolm, were just as adamant in their belief that Reeves should be put to death.
"I hope you never have to go the morgue and see your sister bled to death," he said in 2001. "The system doesn't care about the rights of victims' families."
None of the families could be reached Thursday.
Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, who led a successful effort in the Legislature to abolish the death penalty last year, said Reeves' death shows that life in prison means just that.
"But what this does show is that there are some people who, in fact, wind up dying in prison," he said Thursday.
Death penalty proponents who were able to get the death penalty repeal on the November ballot argue that people sentenced to life still could get out of prison.
“He never should have been on death row in the first place," Chambers said of Reeves. "Family members and friends of the victim did not want to see that happen. ... But the fact that he wound up being in prison all those years and died there is not something that I think ought to be the fate of everybody who commits a homicide. Because as everybody knows, the vast majority of people who commit murder do not get the death penalty. ...
“I just hate it whenever I see that anybody has died in prison. I don’t think prison is a place where people ought to die. That’s not what prison is for.”
Randy Reeves was drunk and had smoked marijuana and taken peyote when he climbed through a window of a Quaker meeting house in Lincoln early on March 29, 1980, and stabbed Mesner, 30, and her friend, Lamm, 28, of Portland.
He was arrested before dawn, stumbling down O Street, his eyes red, his genitals exposed and blood on his hands and clothing.
He said he did not remember killing the women. A Lancaster County District Court jury in 1981 found him guilty in both murders and he was sentenced to death later that year.
Reeves had been in hospice care and was in skilled nursing care at the prison, Nebraska Department of Correctional Services spokesman Andrew Nystrom said Thursday morning.
Nystrom wouldn't say what Reeves was suffering from nor would he say how long he'd been in hospice care or in the skilled care portion of the penitentiary.
"Inmate Reeves died of apparently natural causes at 11:30 p.m.," he said.
As is required by state law, a grand jury will be convened to look into the death.