LINCOLN — The estate of an inmate who was choked to death by his cellmate has filed dual lawsuits against the state and corrections officials, alleging that their negligence led to the death of Terry Berry.
Berry, 22, was nearing his release on parole. He was attacked by his cellmate, who was serving a life sentence for murder, on April 15, 2017, in a solitary confinement cell that was designed for one person at Tecumseh State Prison.
The now 41-year-old cellmate, Patrick Schroeder, was sentenced to death for the fatal attack, which he said was sparked by Berry’s constant talking. Schroeder admitted that he killed Berry and did not oppose prosecutors when they asked for the death penalty.
The two lawsuits, one in federal court and the other in Johnson County District Court, were filed Monday and allege that prison officials ignored protocol and failed to provide a required written explanation before placing the two inmates in the same cell, five days prior to the attack. The placement of two inmates in a special management cell designed for one inmate, the lawsuits claimed, was prompted by overcrowding and a lack of security staff to supervise inmates.
The suits, filed by Omaha attorneys Tom Monaghan and Rodney C. Dahlquist Jr., alleged that corrections supervisors failed to heed a warning by one prison guard regarding the placement. The guard said that she “personally felt that it was not the best idea” because Berry “was known to be very talkative and bothersome” and that Schroeder was an inmate “with a temper (who) would not want someone like” Berry as a cellmate, according to the lawsuits.
A state prison spokeswoman said Monday that the department does not comment on pending litigation.
Schroeder, in the videotaped confession to Berry’s murder, said he didn’t want a “cellie,” and was especially upset that he was paired with Berry. He called his new cellmate “a punk” and a “loudmouth” who was dirty and wouldn’t wipe the cell floor after he urinated on it.
Schroeder said Berry kept laughing off his warnings and wouldn’t quit talking as they watched a mixed martial arts fight on television. Schroeder said he’d had enough and assaulted the younger inmate.
The case raised questions about the practice of double-bunking solitary confinement cells designed to hold troublesome inmates — and only one inmate. Authorities on prisons have said decisions to double-bunk a cell must be made carefully to avoid pairing cellmates who will be incompatible and violent.
The lawsuits allege that prison officials ignored dangerous overcrowding and understaffing at the Tecumseh prison, despite riots in 2015 and 2017 that left four inmates dead and cells burned and ransacked.
The two lawsuits ask for unspecified damages for pain and suffering by the family. The lawsuits were filed on behalf of Telena Moser, the personal representative of Berry’s estate. Named as defendants in the federal lawsuit were State Corrections Director Scott Frakes; the Tecumseh prison warden, Brad Hansen; and six unnamed corrections officers, including two unit managers who allegedly made the decision to double-bunk Berry with Schroeder.
The State of Nebraska is the only defendant in the state lawsuit.
Berry, who was born in Scottsbluff but attended high school in Humboldt, was about to complete a three- to four-year prison sentence for forgery and assaulting a county deputy for crimes committed in Platte County. He had lived at homeless shelters in Omaha prior to his arrest. He was described as talkative, childlike and naive by people who knew him.
Schroeder had been serving a life sentence for the 2006 murder of a 75-year-old Pawnee City farmer, which he said he committed because he was tired of “pinching pennies.”