Nebraska Supreme Court to rule on publication of serial killer’s artwork
June 11th, 2015
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 Joubertâ€™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 â€œsignificant from a historic perspective, from a journalistic perspective and from a law enforcement perspectiveâ€ and should be made available.
NDCS defended its decision to withhold the drawings from the public before the Supreme Court late last month.
Joubert was put to death in Nebraskaâ€™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 areaâ€™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 Nebraskaâ€™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 recalled asking â€œwhat goes through your mind these days and he said ‘to be honest I am still having fantasies (about) killing more children.’â€
Joubert went on to reveal he created at least two drawings depicting his fantasies.
â€œHe told me the drawings depicted a male figure committing crimes on two younger male victims,â€ Pettit said. Later prison officials who recovered the items in the archives added the images were â€œdisturbingâ€ and depicted children being murdered.
Joubert gave Pettit permission to inspect the works but they had been seized by the prison warden. Â When the author made his first request many years ago the Department of Corrections wouldnâ€™t provide access while the inmate appealed his sentence.
With the 30th anniversary of Joubertâ€™s execution approaching, Pettit renewed his request in hopes of updating his book on the case.
â€œI have every piece of evidence in this case except the drawings, so itâ€™s the one thing thatâ€™s bothered me and sort of haunted me,â€ 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.
He believed having an expert analyze how the killer visualized his fantasies could cast new light on the case.
Pettit speculated â€œhe was trying to send a very clear signal of what he was going to do if he ever got out.â€
His death row interviews convinced Pettit â€œJoubert thought he was going to get off death row and out of prison some day and if thatâ€™s the case I think these drawings prove he would have killed more kids.â€
Last year, a district court judge in Lancaster County ruled there was â€œgood causeâ€ to make the drawings available to Pettit. While ordering the drawings released Judge Steven Burns wrote â€œthe purpose of the requested inspection appears to be legitimateâ€ adding â€œthe drawings may be useful to law enforcement officers in further understanding the psychology of serial killers; at least those similar to Joubert.â€
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 courtâ€™s ultimate opinion may create an important precedent in the stateâ€™s handling of future open records requests made to the prison system.
The Nebraska attorney generalâ€™s office declined a request to comment on the case.
Appearing before the Supreme Court in May, James Smith with the Nebraska attorney generalâ€™s office argued against Corrections releasing the artwork, based on the wording of state statute which states â€œcontent of the file shall be confidential and shall not be subject to inspection except by court order for good cause.â€
Judge Michael McCormack asked Smith why canâ€™t the prisoner waive the confidentiality protection, as Joubert had done for Pettit. The stateâ€™s attorney claimed the law doesnâ€™t give prisoners a say in the matter.
â€œItâ€™s not something that the inmate just gets to waive and allow others to see because itâ€™s actually the departmentâ€™s file,â€ Smith said.
The attorney generalâ€™s office also questioned whether Pettit should have exclusive access to the sketches.
In the stateâ€™s brief filed for the Supreme Courtâ€™s review, Smith argued the order issued by the lower court â€œin 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.â€
When Judge William Connolly asked if the stateâ€™s â€œpoint is the plaintiff could use it for his own financial advantageâ€ Smith said the author â€œcould use it to his own financial advantage to put out another edition of his book.â€
Judge William Cassell asked if the financial incentive should be an important consideration in denying access to the files. Smith said while he didnâ€™t â€œknow if itâ€™s important, I think itâ€™s a factor in the analysis.â€
Smith added â€œitâ€™s fair to say what appears to be the motivation are fair things to considerâ€ when reviewing the request to waive an inmateâ€™s confidentiality.
No one outside the prison system objected to releasing the artwork, including the victims’ relatives or Joubertâ€™s surviving family.
The authorâ€™s attorney, Robert Creager, argued â€œthere is a public interest in understandingâ€ 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 â€œa serial killer, while in custody of the Department of Corrections, was fantasizing about killing other people and the departmentâ€™s response was to confiscate the drawings and stick them in the file. And nobody said ‘what is going on here?’â€
Pettitâ€™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 â€œsome 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.’â€
The attorney generalâ€™s office conceded to the Supreme Court case law in the area is â€œsparse.â€
John Bender, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor specializing in journalism and the law agreed â€œthere hasnâ€™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.â€
It is also unclear whether law allows just inspection of the drawings or duplication of the material. â€œYou get to interpret that,â€ Smith told the court. â€œThere is no interpretation of it that I can find.â€
Publishing the drawings would likely be controversial.
Pettit told NET News it is his hope to add the drawings to his book.
â€œI believe these drawings are significant from a historic perspective, from a journalistic perspective and from a law enforcement perspective,â€ Pettit said.
He intends to have them analyzed by experts in criminal psychology to get their interpretation of their meaning and intent. Â â€œI want to give it thoughtful consideration,â€ Pettit said.
Bender hopes Pettit considers the ethical use of the drawings when deciding whether to publish them.
â€œThey may perhaps reveal more than we need to know or should know about the murders John Joubert did commit,â€ Bender said. Â â€œItâ€™s something that would be weighed very carefully by any responsible publisher.â€
The opinion isnâ€™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.
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