LINCOLN — The Nebraska Supreme Court will consider the case of a man convicted in the rape and murder of a newspaper carrier.
Jeffrey Hessler had been convicted in December 2004 in the Feb. 11, 2003, rape and murder of Heather Guerrero, 15. He had been convicted of first-degree murder, as well as the charges of kidnapping, first-degree sexual assault, and use of a firearm to commit a felony. He was convicted of abducting the girl within blocks of her Gering home to rape her and of killing the girl to cover up the crime.
The man is currently sitting on death row.
Hessler is seeking the court to overturn the sentence of death in the case. In June 2019, Scotts Bluff County District Court Judge Andrea Miller denied a motion from Hessler seeking post-conviction relief.
In Hessler’s motion for post-conviction relief and subsequent appeal, Hessler takes issue with the method of sentencing in a death penalty case in Nebraska. Nebraska, a death penalty case has three phases: first, the trial, in which a jury determines guilt or innocence. Once a guilty ruling is determined, the case moves into a sentencing phase, where jurors decide if a case is eligible for the death penalty, weighing whether there are aggravating circumstances that exist. After the jury decides if the case is eligible for the death penalty, a three-judge panel makes the final determination, deciding if there are mitigating circumstances that make the case eligible for a sentence of life or imposing the death penalty.
Hessler argues that Nebraska’s death penalty procedures violate his constitutional rights, arguing that a jury, rather than a panel of judges, should have determined the sentence. Nebraska had changed its procedures following a 2002 case Ring vs. Arizona, which determined that juries, not judges must find that the facts of the case support a death sentence.
However, Hessler cites a case, Hurst v. Florida, a 2016 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that, in that case, a defendant, Timothy Hurst, had been convicted of murdering a coworker. He was sentenced to death, but the case had been appealed and the Florida Supreme Court ordered the man re-sentenced. A second jury recommended a death sentence in 2012, however, a judge independently considered the evidence and sentenced Hurst again to the death penalty. The U.S. Supreme Court heard the case and ruled that Hurst’s Sixth Amendment rights had been violated. In the ruling, one Supreme Court judge found that Florida’s capital punishment system violated the Eighth Amendment, which applies to cruel and unusual punishment. Hessler cites Nebraska’s death penalty sentencing as a violation of his Eighth Amendment and 14th Amendment (due process) rights.
In Miller’s ruling dismissing the case, the judge said the Nebraska Supreme Court has previously held that the Hurst case does not create a new legal rule and has denied post-conviction relief in similar cases, such as State vs. Lotter, and found that it would not have retroactive application to cases. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ruling. Hessler appealed Miller’s finding, filing in July also arguing that because Nebraska is the only state with the current death penalty sentencing procedure that it “violates evolving standards of decency under the Eighth Amendment.”
The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office has contested the appeal, arguing that it is procedurally barred. Hessler raised the same constitutional claims in direct appeals and has now filed three post-conviction motions seeking to overturn the sentence, the state said in its brief.
The Nebraska Supreme Court is currently scheduled to hear the appeal in Hessler’s case during its February call, slated for Feb. 6-7.