Inmate who killed cellmate at Tecumseh will represent himself at death-penalty hearing

TECUMSEH, Neb. — Convicted murderer Patrick Schroeder will represent himself when a three-judge panel decides if he will get life in prison or the death penalty for killing his cellmate.

On Tuesday, Johnson County District Judge Vicky Johnson granted Schroeder’s request to set aside his court-appointed lawyers and represent himself during the April 19-20 sentencing hearing.

Schroeder, 40, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in connection with strangling his cellmate at the Tecumseh State Prison on April 15. He said that his cellmate, 22-year-old Terry Berry, would not stop talking and had pushed him to his “threshold.”

The attack, in the prison’s solitary confinement unit, raised questions about the practice of placing two inmates in a cell designed for one, and placing a lifer with a younger inmate, who was about to be released on parole. Berry’s death was the fifth slaying of an inmate at the Tecumseh prison in the past three years.

Schroeder, who is serving a life sentence for murdering a Pawnee County farmer in 2006, had initially wanted to be his own attorney. Then, in December, he changed his mind and asked that state lawyers with the Commission on Public Advocacy represent him at the sentencing hearing.

Recently, he changed his mind again, and asked Johnson, in a letter she sealed from public view, to be his own lawyer. When asked why on Tuesday, Schroeder said, “The path I want to go down is different than they’re recommending.”

During a brief court hearing, Schroeder was asked repeatedly if he understood what he was doing, if he understood that he would have to present his own evidence, and if he understood that he would be at a “significant disadvantage” because prosecutors handling the case had considerable experience in death penalty cases.

“Do you understand that?” the judge asked.

“Yes,” responded Schroeder.

A court-appointed attorney will be available to Schroeder at the hearing to answer questions, but will not prepare arguments.

A three-judge panel will take evidence on how the aggravating circumstances of the slaying — such as Schroeder’s past conviction for murder — balance against mitigating circumstances – such as extreme mental or emotional disturbance — and whether the death sentence or life in prison is warranted.

Besides Johnson, the judges on the panel will be Robert Otte of Lancaster County and John Marsh of Buffalo County.

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