Tecumseh inmate gets death penalty; 'May he rot in the gates of hell,' victim's grandfather says

TECUMSEH, Neb. — State prison inmate Patrick Schroeder didn’t oppose receiving a death sentence, and on Friday, he got it.

A three-judge panel ruled that Schroeder will die in the state’s execution chamber for killing his cellmate in a double-bunked solitary confinement cell at the Tecumseh State Prison last year.

Schroeder, who was already serving a life sentence for murdering a Pawnee City farmer in 2006, sat motionless in court as the death sentence was pronounced for the murder of cellmate Terry Berry.

He now joins 11 other men on Nebraska’s death row.

Schroeder dismissed his court-appointed attorneys in July and pleaded guilty to the April 2017 slaying. Then he didn’t offer any resistance to prosecutors’ arguments this spring that he deserved to die because he had a history of violence due to the previous murder.

The judges, in a lengthy sentencing order, said that while Schroeder had saved Berry’s family from the pain of a trial, the older inmate deserved the death penalty because the murder was premeditated, “disturbing” and “especially cruel,” given that Berry was only days away from being paroled.

“May he rot in the gates of hell,” said Berry’s grandfather John James of Bennet. “He’s a gutless good-for-nothing.”

Schroeder, 40, told authorities that he choked his 22-year-old cellmate to death because Berry was annoying and dirty, and had ignored his warning to clean up and shut up. While the two inmates watched a mixed martial arts match on TV, Schroeder said he asked Berry to move his chair in front of him, then used a “death grip chokehold” and a towel to render Berry lifeless. Berry was declared dead three days later, after his organs had been harvested and donated.

Schroeder remained motionless as the death sentence was pronounced. He left the courtroom under guard without saying a word.

Prosecutors with the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office and the Johnson County Attorney’s Office also departed without comment, though they accepted handshakes from James in a hallway after the 40-minute sentencing hearing.

As with all death sentences, Friday’s decision by the three-judge panel will generate an automatic appeal to the Nebraska Supreme Court.

Schroeder and Berry had been double-bunked in a solitary confinement cell that was designed to hold one inmate because of overcrowding in the state prison system. The slaying led to questions about that practice, and about pairing a lifer with a much younger inmate who was serving time for a lesser crime — passing a stolen check. The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services has defended double-bunking inmates as safe under proper circumstances.

Schroeder had told prison officials that he did not want a “cellie,” and when he found out that it was Berry — a young, naive inmate with a reputation for being obnoxious — he warned that the pairing would not go well. They lived in the same cell for five days before the deadly assault.

A report about the slaying by the State Legislature’s inspector general for corrections said the two inmates were double-bunked as punishment, after ignoring directives by staff. That report, released in August, also said a written threat assessment of the inmates, required before double-bunking inmates to assess risk and compatibility, had not been done.

Berry’s family filed a $10 million wrongful death claim with the state in August. The claim was not approved, opening the way for the filing of lawsuits seeking similar damages.

James, Berry’s grandfather, also blamed prison officials, saying it was “just plain stupid” to place a low-level offender in the same cell with a convicted murderer.

Berry, who was born in Scottsbluff but attended high school across the state in Humboldt, had a troubled life that included petty crimes and stints living at homeless shelters and institutions for troubled teenagers. He was the fifth inmate to die a violent death at the Tecumseh State Prison since 2015. The four others were killed during two prison riots.

Johnson County District Judge Vicky Johnson presided over the case and read the sentencing order. She said Schroeder’s apparent death wish was not a consideration in the sentence, only “the law” and that the slaying warranted the state’s harshest sentence.

Johnson was joined by District Judges Robert Otte of Lancaster County and John Marsh of Buffalo County in the unanimous decision for the death penalty.

Omaha World-Herald (NE)

6/4/2018 11:13:55 AM Central Daylight Time

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