Nebraska Supreme Court to rule on publication of serial killer’s artwork

By

June 11th, 2015

 

1983 coverage of the Joubert murder in the Omaha World Herald.

1983 coverage of the Joubert murder in the Omaha World Herald.


 

Lincoln, NE – Drawings done by executed serial killer John Joubert in the 1980s remain out of public view while the Nebraska Supreme Court decides if the artwork should be released to an author updating his account of the notorious murder case.

[audio:https://kvnonews.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/joubertdrawings6_11_15KVNO01.mp3]

Joubert told onetime Omaha television reporter Mark Pettit about the sketches during a series of death row interviews. At least two drawings purportedly depict Joubert’s violent fantasies against young boys.

Pettit, who hopes to update his book “A Need to Kill” with information about the drawings, has been denied access by the Nebraska Department of Corrections (NDCS). He claims the work is “significant from a historic perspective, from a journalistic perspective and from a law enforcement perspective” and should be made available.

John Joubert's first prison mug shot. (Courtesy Department of Corrections)

John Joubert’s first prison mug shot. (Courtesy Department of Corrections)

NDCS defended its decision to withhold the drawings from the public before the Supreme Court late last month.

Joubert was put to death in Nebraska’s electric chair in 1997. He admitted to kidnapping and murdering two young boys in Sarpy County and a third in the state of Maine. Joubert, once a Boy Scout, became an Air Force radar technician stationed at Offutt Air Force Base.

The bodies of Danny Joe Eberle and Christopher Walden were found within weeks of each other in Sarpy County, south of Omaha. The ages of the victims, the especially brutal manner in which they died, and massive media coverage combined to make the case one of the most disturbing in the area’s history.

Ten years after his conviction, Joubert ended any legal challenges to his sentence and became the next-to-last person to die in Nebraska’s electric chair.

In the months leading to his execution, Joubert gave a number of death row interviews to reporters, including seven to Pettit, who was researching a book on the case. During one meeting the killer told Pettit about drawings he had done in his prison cell.

Pettit hopes to update his book "A Need To Kill."

Pettit hopes to update his book “A Need To Kill.”

Pettit recalled asking “what goes through your mind these days and he said ‘to be honest I am still having fantasies (about) killing more children.’”

Joubert went on to reveal he created at least two drawings depicting his fantasies.

“He told me the drawings depicted a male figure committing crimes on two younger male victims,” Pettit said. Later prison officials who recovered the items in the archives added the images were “disturbing” and depicted children being murdered.

Joubert gave Pettit permission to inspect the works but they had been seized by the prison warden.  When the author made his first request many years ago the Department of Corrections wouldn’t provide access while the inmate appealed his sentence.

With the 30th anniversary of Joubert’s execution approaching, Pettit renewed his request in hopes of updating his book on the case.

“I have every piece of evidence in this case except the drawings, so it’s the one thing that’s bothered me and sort of haunted me,” Pettit said.

Last year Corrections officials denied his request to view or duplicate the artwork. Pettit was not given specific reasons beyond citation of the state statute giving the Department of Corrections sole authority over inmates’ files.

Pettit sued.

He believed having an expert analyze how the killer visualized his fantasies could cast new light on the case.

Pettit speculated “he was trying to send a very clear signal of what he was going to do if he ever got out.”

His death row interviews convinced Pettit “Joubert thought he was going to get off death row and out of prison some day and if that’s the case I think these drawings prove he would have killed more kids.”

Last year, a district court judge in Lancaster County ruled there was “good cause” to make the drawings available to Pettit. While ordering the drawings released Judge Steven Burns wrote “the purpose of the requested inspection appears to be legitimate” adding “the drawings may be useful to law enforcement officers in further understanding the psychology of serial killers; at least those similar to Joubert.”

The Department of Corrections appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court. Because there is little case law addressing public release of files kept on Nebraska inmates, the court’s ultimate opinion may create an important precedent in the state’s handling of future open records requests made to the prison system.

The Nebraska attorney general’s office declined a request to comment on the case.

Appearing before the Supreme Court in May, James Smith with the Nebraska attorney general’s office argued against Corrections releasing the artwork, based on the wording of state statute which states “content of the file shall be confidential and shall not be subject to inspection except by court order for good cause.”

Judge Michael McCormack asked Smith why can’t the prisoner waive the confidentiality protection, as Joubert had done for Pettit. The state’s attorney claimed the law doesn’t give prisoners a say in the matter.

“It’s not something that the inmate just gets to waive and allow others to see because it’s actually the department’s file,” Smith said.

The attorney general’s office also questioned whether Pettit should have exclusive access to the sketches.

In the state’s brief filed for the Supreme Court’s review, Smith argued the order issued by the lower court “in effect granted Pettit, an author and media reporter, exclusive access to Joubert’s drawings since the confidentiality provisions of the statute means the drawings would remain confidential to all others.”

When Judge William Connolly asked if the state’s “point is the plaintiff could use it for his own financial advantage” Smith said the author “could use it to his own financial advantage to put out another edition of his book.”

Judge William Cassell asked if the financial incentive should be an important consideration in denying access to the files. Smith said while he didn’t “know if it’s important, I think it’s a factor in the analysis.”

Smith added “it’s fair to say what appears to be the motivation are fair things to consider” when reviewing the request to waive an inmate’s confidentiality.

No one outside the prison system objected to releasing the artwork, including the victims’ relatives or Joubert’s surviving family.

The author’s attorney, Robert Creager, argued “there is a public interest in understanding” both what is in the files and why the drawings were hidden in prison archives until Pettit made his most recent request.

Creager said it was surprising “a serial killer, while in custody of the Department of Corrections, was fantasizing about killing other people and the department’s response was to confiscate the drawings and stick them in the file. And nobody said ‘what is going on here?’”

Pettit’s attorney told the justices there will be benefit not only to the author but to the field of criminal forensics to know what the drawings depict.

Creager said he expects there is “some legitimate interest in law enforcement in serial killers studied by the FBI to simply say ‘hey, you had a classic case of a serial killer in your midst, in his cell, facing death drawing pictures of killing people.’”

The attorney general’s office conceded to the Supreme Court case law in the area is “sparse.”

John Bender, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor specializing in journalism and the law agreed “there hasn’t been much in Nebraska in way of litigation to clarify what is a good cause and what is not, and nothing quite like this case either.”

It is also unclear whether law allows just inspection of the drawings or duplication of the material. “You get to interpret that,” Smith told the court. “There is no interpretation of it that I can find.”

Publishing the drawings would likely be controversial.

Pettit told NET News it is his hope to add the drawings to his book.

“I believe these drawings are significant from a historic perspective, from a journalistic perspective and from a law enforcement perspective,” Pettit said.

He intends to have them analyzed by experts in criminal psychology to get their interpretation of their meaning and intent.  “I want to give it thoughtful consideration,” Pettit said.

Bender hopes Pettit considers the ethical use of the drawings when deciding whether to publish them.

“They may perhaps reveal more than we need to know or should know about the murders John Joubert did commit,” Bender said.  “It’s something that would be weighed very carefully by any responsible publisher.”

The opinion isn’t expected until later this year.

 


 

The Night Joubert Died

In 1997 NET News covered Joubert’s execution from inside and outside the Nebraska State Penitentiary. Here are the original reports filed that night by reporters Keith Ludden and Carolyn Johnsen.

Click to hear statements from witnesses to the execution

Click for coverage of the crowds outside the prison

 

 

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