Harold Lamont Otey recounted the crime in detail after he was arrested for the murder of Jane McManus, a 26-year-old Omaha student and waitress.

Otey was walking home in Omaha in the predawn hours of a summer night in 1977. Through a window, he saw McManus sleeping on a sofa on the first floor of the house she shared with her sister.

He entered through the back door, took her stereo and carried it outside. When he re-entered, she woke up and he told her he was going to rob and rape her. She fought back, and Otey cut her across the forehead with a knife.

He carried out his promise, raping her, then forcing her upstairs to get her money, leaving blood droplets in a trail behind them.

Upstairs, he stabbed her, and after she pleaded with him to kill her, he hit her four or five times over the head with a hammer and strangled her with a belt.

Otey later recanted the confession, in which he admitted to other crimes including attempted rapes, saying detectives fed him details of McManus' murder and forced him to answer under duress.

He was convicted and sentenced to death. He was executed in 1994.

At the end of the same summer Otey killed McManus, Dennis Lee Sell raped and killed Ruth Eby, a Lexington farm wife and mother of three, stabbing her with a pair of pliers and battering her.

After his arrest, he led officials to the body of Judith Dangler, another Lexington mother who disappeared from her home earlier that year after dropping off her 5-year-old at school.

Sell, now 62, was allowed to plead guilty to second-degree murder in Eby's death to avoid the death penalty. He also pleaded to second-degree murder in Dangler's death.

When Sell killed Eby, he was free on bond awaiting sentencing for guilty pleas on charges of robbery and assault with intent to rape another woman.

He had been paroled six years earlier, in spite of objections from a district judge and county attorney, after serving time for a sexual assault in Buffalo County. He violated that parole, returned to prison and was paroled again.

After his arrest for Eby's murder, at least half a dozen women came forward to say he'd made sexual advances toward them.

In sentencing, the court found aggravating circumstances of previous crimes and the heinous nature of the crimes. But as a sexual sociopath, he was found to be impaired at the time of the killings by mental illness.

Sell is serving two sentences of 10 years to life and two sentences for sexual assault of as many as 35 years.

He has been eligible for parole since April 1999; his next parole review is in April.

Nebraska laws include scrupulous standards of fairness and uniformity in imposing the death penalty. It never should be imposed arbitrarily, the Nebraska Legislature has said. It should be applied uniformly throughout the state. And the crimes of those sentenced to death should be comparable to other crimes that resulted in execution - and worse than those that resulted in life or a shorter sentence.

Death should be reserved for the worst of the worst.

But in death penalty debates this year, Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford said capital punishment in Nebraska is arbitrary and inconsistent.

"That is an absolute, unrefutable fact," he said. "Why would we impose such a penalty if it is arbitrary?"

If it is, what makes it so?

Prosecutors have broad discretion in deciding whether to file charges of first-degree murder, second-degree or manslaughter. That discretion contributes to geographic and race discrepancies and inconsistencies in charges and sentencing outcomes.

Judges sentence according to their own case experience, and they don't necessarily consider sentencing patterns outside their own counties.

And the laws themselves, some say, are broad and vague and offer limited sentencing guidelines.

Throw in the effects of the race of defendants and victims, gender, socioeconomic status, cost of trials and the shocking nature of the crime.

From statutes to prosecutors to judges, the system seems tilted in favor of lesser sentences for those who commit murder, and to life sentences rather than death.

"This state likes having the death penalty on the books, but it doesn't like imposing it," said Jerry Soucie, attorney with the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy. "The death penalty is symbolic. It has no impact on justice or deterrence."

Some believe it could, if the appeal process were shortened.

"If a state or government is going to have the death penalty, there ought to be sufficient judges and resources around to carry it out in a timely manner," Lancaster County Attorney Gary Lacey said. "I can't understand why any case should take more than six to seven years. It should not take 20 years to get something through our court system."

When University of Iowa researcher David Baldus studied how the death penalty was administered in states including Nebraska, state law was indefinite concerning the rights of prosecutors to waive the death penalty in first-degree murder convictions.

Since then, the law has changed to require prosecutors to allege when a case should be tried as a death case before the trial.

A prosecutor's ability to allege aggravators has not been tested in the courts. But juries now weigh in, as well as the three-judge panels.

The state's two largest counties approach death penalty sentencing in different ways, Baldus found in his 2001 study of the Nebraska system.

In Douglas County, if prosecutors have an aggravating circumstance and can prove it, they ask for death and put it in the hands of the defense to produce mitigators and of the court to decide.

Lancaster County prosecutors weigh aggravators and mitigators themselves and decide whether there should be a death penalty hearing.

The Baldus study showed that Lancaster County prosecutors waive the death penalty in about 60 percent of first-degree murder cases.

"We make the decision as to whether or not we are going to seek the death penalty, and judges take the lead from us," Lacey said. "It's not hard to get death in appropriate cases."

Prosecutors from more rural counties sometimes weigh the financial cost of capital cases. They require more investigation, more preparation, more expert witnesses and closer screening of jurors.

Hundreds of killers plead to charges less than first-degree murder, Soucie said. And some of those cases are worse than those in which the offender is charged with first-degree murder.

Tom Hagel, a University of Dayton law professor, part-time judge and former Lancaster County deputy public defender, said some states, like Ohio, use the grand jury system for felonies, and the grand jury decides the charges.

"Although you could say, what the grand jury hears is what the prosecutor wants it to hear," Hagel said.

In 1989, Daniel Gondringer, 18, allowed 13-year-old Kimberly Martin to stay at his house so her parents wouldn't find out she was suspended from school. Sometime during the day, he stabbed her in the stomach, claiming the injury happened while the two were playfully fencing.

She lost consciousness, and he put her into the trunk of his car and drove her to the country. When he opened the trunk and found her awake, he moved her to a field and cut her throat. When that did not kill her, he hit her twice in the head with a pick ax.

Gondringer pleaded guilty after charges were reduced from first-degree to second-degree murder, which eliminated the possibility of the death penalty. He was sentenced to 10 years to life for the murder, up to 50 years for attempted kidnapping and up to 20 years for use of a weapon to commit a felony.

He will be eligible for parole in 2013.

Nebraska is one of a handful of states that allow trial judges to sentence convicted murderers. Since 2002, the establishment of aggravating circumstances in capital cases has shifted to juries.

Before that new law, trial judges had the option of sentencing a capital case themselves or appointing two additional judges to decide if life or death is appropriate. Now, three-judge panels are required, and the three must be unanimous in choosing death.

Cases studied between 1973 and 1999 showed Nebraska used three-judge panels half of the time. Those panels sentenced defendants to death about 51 percent of the time and solo judges 16 percent of the time. Higher courts reversed sentences by a panel more than a third of the time, but solo judges' sentences were reversed 57 percent of the time.

Some judges, according to Baldus, said panels cut down on legal and political scrutiny and enhanced reliability.

An ongoing controversy in the past 10 to 15 years has revolved around the creation of federal sentencing guidelines, that is, specific sentences for specific crimes, to deal with the lack of uniformity, said Hagel, the Dayton University professor.

But that eliminates the discretion of the judge and the human factor, he said. And it doesn't necessarily result in justice.

Sentencing decisions always will be subjective unless you take away the discretion of the judge, he said.

"The whole idea of American justice is that defendants should be looked at as individuals and sentenced accordingly," Hagel said. "That's the tradition in our country."

Retired Douglas County District Judge James Murphy said in an interview that he has never been a great fan of capital punishment, but "as a judge I took an oath to follow the laws of Nebraska. I was certainly willing to consider the death penalty."

Sentencing someone to death, he said, is like pulling the switch yourself.

In 1979, Murphy handed down a death sentence for Steven Harper, then 25, for poisoning a former girlfriend's family with dimethylnitrosamine, a carcinogen.

Harper was upset because Sherry Johnson married someone instead of him. Harper previously had shot at and injured members of her family.

After he was released from jail, he experimented by poisoning animals and told friends of his plan.

Then he broke into her house and put the poison in lemonade and milk in the refrigerator.

The poison was ingested by five people, including Sherry Johnson's husband, Duane, and 11-month-old Chad Shelton. Both died. Sherry Johnson and Bruce and Sallie Shelton became ill but survived.

Murphy said he believed that if Harper had ever gotten out of prison, he would have tried again.

He had previous convictions and multiple victims in committing the heinous crime. No statutory mitigating circumstances were found.

Harper committed suicide while awaiting execution.

The Nebraska system seems linked to arbitrariness in sentencing at more levels than any other, Baldus said in 2001.

One problem is the way state laws are written, he said.

Several of the aggravating circumstances are problematic, Baldus said. What is a "substantial" criminal record? "Especially" heinous, atrocious, cruel? "Great" risk of death? An "apparent" attempt to conceal a crime?

And what guidelines are there for weighing aggravating and mitigating circumstances?

One of the major problems with the current statute, said Jerry Soucie, is the process of different fact finders, juries finding aggravators, judges weighing them with mitigators.

Ricky Roewert and friends were drinking at a bar in Norfolk in 1977 when they hatched a plan to rob and kill someone. When others dropped out of the scheme, Roe-wert and another man lured Henry Hernandez out of the bar by inviting him to a party.

On the way, they stopped to get two knives. They drove Hernandez, who was intoxicated, to the city dump, and when he passed out, they took his billfold and pulled him out of the car. Roewert cut his throat, decapitated him, disemboweled him, then turned him over and slashed his back.

Roewert, 23, was charged with first-degree murder. The crime was found to include two aggravating circumstances: He committed the murder to conceal a crime and his identity, and his acts evidenced depravity. Roewert had no significant criminal history and was impaired by alcohol. He was sentenced to life in prison.

As the state and U.S. Supreme courts have fine-tuned the way the death penalty is administered, inmates have come and gone from death row. In Nebraska, since the beginning of the 1970s, four or five men a decade have left death row, most with their sentences commuted by the state Supreme Court.

Of 31 people sentenced to death between 1973 and 2007, 13 had their sentences commuted. Four died of natural causes or suicide, and three were executed.

The court vacated one death sentence. Jeremy Sheets was found guilty of killing Kenyatta Bush, 17, in 1992 in Omaha, but key evidence against him was a taped confession made by his friend Adam Barnett, who participated in the crime but said it was Sheets who stabbed the girl.

Sheets was sentenced to death, but the Nebraska Supreme Court threw out the evidence because Sheets' lawyer was not able to cross-examine Barnett, who committed suicide before the trial. Sheets was released after three years in prison.

The death penalty appeals process can go on for a couple of decades or more.

C. Michael Anderson and Peter Hochstein spent 23 years on death row before their sentences were commuted to life. Randy Reeves and John Rust each spent 20 years.

State and federal courts have narrowed the types of cases to which the death penalty can be applied and have changed the rules of sentencing. The latest change requires a jury - not a judge - to determine the aggravating circumstances that must apply in death- eligible cases.

Nebraska prosecutors and judges seem less prone to seek and impose the death penalty because of the difficulty in making it stick.

Of 38 death sentences issued in Nebraska since 1973, nearly 64 percent were reversed and required new trials or sentencing procedures; 52 percent were vacated, reduced to life or a term of years; 8 percent withstood appeal and resulted in execution.

Nationally, 41 percent of 4,578 death sentences handed down between 1973 and 1995 were reversed on direct appeal because of errors. Sixty-seven percent were overturned on such grounds as incompetent defense lawyers, suppressed evidence or judges giving the wrong instructions; 10 percent of those were re-sentenced to death.

Alejandro Ortiz-Gonzales and Juan Chavez were found facedown in the Elkhorn River near Broken Bridge in Madison County in September 2001, wrists bound, mouths taped. Each had been shot multiple times.

Nazario Robles and Julian Hernandez were charged with two counts of first-degree murder for the killings; other defendants faced charges of aiding in the plot to rob the men of methamphetamine.

When a Madison County judge ruled the county could not seek the death penalty because of a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that rendered Nebraska's death penalty unconstitutional, two of the men were allowed to plead to second-degree murder and sentenced to 40 to 60 years in prison, which meant they'd be eligible for parole in 20 years.

A year later in the same county, three men walked into a bank and shot and killed four employees and a customer. Shortly after the crime, Madison County Prosecutor Joe Smith and others with pending murder cases called for a special session of the Legislature to strengthen Nebraska's death penalty, and then-Gov. Mike Johanns obliged.

The Norfolk bank robbers - Jose Sandoval, Jorge Galindo and Erick Vela - are on death row.

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers has asked: Were those who murdered Latinos less of a societal menace than those who killed four white people and an Asian-American?

Smith said his office had planned to seek the death penalty in the earlier case but could not because of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and the district court judge's interpretation of it.

Nebraska juries are required to establish aggravating circumstances in a capital crime, and judges weigh those with mitigating circumstances.

Richard Wiener, director of the law psychology program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has studied jury comprehension and perceptions in capital murder cases.

Studies have shown that jurors' understanding of such concepts as "beyond a reasonable doubt" and aggravating and mitigating circumstances are not very good, Wiener said. Jurors have the most difficulty with mitigators, but they aren't that clear on aggravators, either, he said.

The typical juror has never had experience making decisions upon which someone's life depends, and it is a daunting task, Wiener said. For one thing, jurors don't understand the language of the legal system.

"Heinousness is a pretty tough call," Wiener said. "For most, it is a very subjective judgment."

The decision caused outrage in the state and beyond in 1985. It turned on one word: "especially."

Was what Robert Hunt did to Beverly Ramspott, a young Norfolk bride-to-be, just heinous or was it especially heinous?

Hunt had habitually fantasized about having sex with dead women. When he saw Ramspott's engagement photo in the Norfolk Daily News, he decided to pay a visit to her mobile home. He shoplifted a BB gun, several pairs of women's panties and a pair of nylon stockings and knocked on her door.

When she answered, he forced his way in, bound her hands and feet and filled her mouth and throat with the panties. He wound the stockings around her neck. When she stopped moving, he picked her up and moved her to the bedroom, where he fulfilled his fantasy.

Afterward, he felt her pulse and believed she might be alive. He carried her to a bathtub and placed her head under water while her body twitched and shook. The phone rang, and he fled. Later, he had his wife call the police and report the murder.

Three judges sentenced him in Madison County District Court to die in the state's electric chair, the sentence coming the same day John Joubert was sentenced in Sarpy County to die for the murders of two boys.

But while Joubert went on to meet his fate, Hunt's sentence was overturned.

The sexual gratification Hunt achieved could be called exceptionally heinous, the state Supreme Court said in a 4-3 decision. But "the murder itself, given the inherent nature of a killing, cannot."

Ramspott was unconscious from shortly after Hunt entered her home. Any forcible killing entails some violence toward the victim, the court said.

Hunt was re-sentenced to life.

The court received a hailstorm of criticism, including a column from the late syndicated columnist Mike Royko. Letters poured in asking then-Chief Justice Norm Krivosha whether he knew the difference between night and day.

Speaking after the decision to a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism class, Krivosha said, yes, he could tell the difference between night and day.

"But can anyone tell us at which moment twilight began?"

Reach JoAnne Young at 473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com.

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