Convict's attorneys challenge Nebraska's death penalty

Feb. 6, 2013 at 9:49 PM
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OMAHA, Feb. 6 (UPI) -- Attorneys for a man convicted of murdering a family asked a Nebraska court to rule the state's capital punishment law unconstitutional, court records showed.

The attorneys for Jose Oliveira-Coutinho -- who was convicted Oct. 5 for the 2009 slayings of a Brazilian missionary family, Vanderlei Szczepanik; Jacqueline, his wife; and Christopher, their 7-year-old son -- Tuesday filed a 25-page motion that lists nine grounds on which they said Nebraska's execution law violates the U.S. and state constitutions, the Lincoln Journal Star reported.

Oliveira was convicted on three counts of first-degree murder and one count of theft, court records show.

Oliveira-Coutinho's attorneys, Todd Lancaster and Horacio Wheelock, also argue that existing state statutes are vague, allow discriminatory and arbitrary use of the death penalty, and do not give defendants proper notice of how and when a sentence of death will be applied, the Journal Star reported.

Oliveira-Coutinho and two other Brazilian men were employed to help the Szczepanik family renovate an Omaha school for the family's church. An argument over pay ensued and the family vanished. The men ran up charges on the family's charge cards, the newspaper reported.

One of the three men, Valdeir Goncalves-Santos, entered into a plea bargain in 2011, pleading guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for his agreement to testify against Oliveira-Coutinho and another worker, Elias Lourenco-Batista. Extradition attempts are under way to bring back Lourenco-Batista from Brazil.

Goncalves-Santos testified the workers beat Vanderlei Szczepanik to death with a metal rod and baseball bat, hanged his son and wife, and threw the bodies into the Missouri River. He was sentenced in November to 20 years in prison.

The three-judge panel in the case must decide whether the crimes warrant execution, as the jury found aggravating circumstances existed.

A date for sentencing for Oliveira-Coutinho has not been set.

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