LINCOLN — The Nebraska Supreme Court has denied an appeal filed by man convicted in the 2003 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 had sought post-conviction relief, seeking to have his sentence overturned. In June 2019, Scotts Bluff County District Court Judge Andrea Miller denied a motion from Hessler seeking post-conviction relief. The Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed Miller’s ruling in its own ruling, released Friday.
In Hessler’s motion for post-conviction relief and subsequent appeal, Hessler argued the method of sentencing in a death penalty case in Nebraska is improper. He argued 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. After a conviction, juries consider whether a case is eligible for the death penalty, then a three-judge panel makes the final determination. The panel decides if there are mitigating circumstances that make the case eligible for a sentence of life or imposing the death penalty.
However, Hessler cited a case, Hurst v. Florida, a 2016 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling in the case of defendant, Timothy Hurst, who 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.”
In its ruling, the Nebraska Supreme Court also pointed to its previous ruling in the case of death row inmate John Lotter’s case.