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Caldwell County man could face death penalty in slayings

In Caldwell County, the deaths of two Wisconsin brothers has put their accused killer in the position of being eligible for the death penalty.

Garland Joseph Nelson was charged with the first-degree murder of Nick and Justin Diemel on Oct. 23, a crime that has only two punishments, according to Missouri Statute 565.020, life in prison without parole or death.

United States criteria for capital punishment

Robert Dunham is the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. The organization collects data on the death penalty, some of which has been stored in the Library of Congress, and does not take a position for or against the penalty, though they do have some criticism for the way it is administered.

According to Dunham, in order for the death penalty to be pursued, a death must have resulted because of the actions of the defendant. This was a decision made by the Supreme County in Coker v. Georgia, which ruled it was unconstitutional to put someone to death for a sexual assault that did not involve murder.

“They explicitly expand that to cases of child rape,” Dunham said. “So no one in the modern era has been executed for a crime that did not result in death.”

The second criteria is that someone caused the death intentionally or was acting with disregard for human life while participating in a felony.

“You have to exhibit at least reckless disregard for human life, and be a major participant in a felony that results in death.”

Missouri criteria for capital punishment

Like with many laws, there are statutes for capital punishment in each state that require specific aggravating circumstances. According to Dunham, these aggravating circumstances can be broken down into three categories: those based on the crime, those based on the victim and those based on the defendant.

Aggravating circumstances in Missouri based on crime include having more than one victim, using torture or vile methods to kill, paying someone to kill, when a death occurred because of reckless disregard for human life, killing to prevent arrest or to conceal a felony offense, murder that occurred during certain felony offenses like kidnapping and sexual assault, a murder that occurred during a hijacking, and a murder that occurred as part of a pattern of criminal street gang activity.

Aggravating circumstances in Missouri based on victim include the murder of a judicial officer, prosecuting attorney, circuit attorney, assistant prosecuting attorney, assistant circuit attorney, peace officer, elected official or anyone who formerly held these titles because they practiced their duties. The murder of witnesses, potential witnesses, those helping in prosecution, an employee of the Department of Corrections and firefighters also are listed.

Aggravating circumstances in Missouri based on person include murders committed by a defendant with a prior conviction for murder in the first degree, a defendant with serious assaultive criminal conviction and an escaped convict.

Issues with the death penalty in Missouri

Though Dunham said he does not take a stance on the death penalty, he did point out several issues Missouri has had in regard to the practice, including reports of a doctor mixing drugs incorrectly and Missouri receiving drugs from an unlicensed manufacturer.

But before a person ever ends up in the execution chamber, they must first go through a trial. Dunham said Missouri is unique in its capital punishment trials because a jury that cannot decide on the death penalty can be overruled by single judge.

“Only Indiana and Missouri have that kind of procedure, and it’s probably unconstitutional.”

Misconceptions of the death penalty in the United States

Dunham said that there are misconceptions that make the public think the death penalty should be pursued, such as cost, deterrence and emotional healing for the victim’s family.

Dunham said that both pursuing the death penalty and holding someone on death row costs taxpayers much more than a life sentence. This is because the case requires more time and work for the defense, sentencing is often overturned and the appeals process is extensive.

“As Philadelphia’s District Attorney Larry Krasner has said, pursuing the death penalty is like lighting taxpayer money on fire,” Dunham said.

A lengthy study also showed that the death penalty does not deter people from committing similar crimes.

“What we found was that there is a consistent pattern over a 31-year period, both with respect to police and with respect to murders in general, and that is states that have the death penalty have higher murder rates,” Dunham said.

Another issue that Dunham pointed to was that victim’s families often don’t feel immediate relief when a defendant is sentenced to death. Because of appeals and media attention, the grieving process is often interrupted and it can feel like the family cannot receive closure for many years.

News-Press NOW attempted to make contact with Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zhand, who is currently seeking the death penalty in a case of an alleged quadruple homicide, to hear his views on the death penalty and its benefits. Zhand was unable to comment at the time of publication.

Ultimately, the decision to pursue the death penalty in the case of Garland Nelson will be left up to special prosecutor Stephen Sokoloff.


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Roberts tapped for position in Ashcroft office

Harry Roberts has landed a new job in Jefferson City.

The former Buchanan County Presiding Commissioner and GOP State Senate candidate was approached by Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft in April about joining his office.

“Every once in a while you run across an opportunity in life that you just can’t say no to, and I couldn’t say no to him,” Roberts said. “He’s obviously a man of tremendous integrity and someone I believe in.”

While running for senate, Roberts picked up a huge endorsement in his unsuccessful bid over now-Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer: Jay’s father John Ashcroft. The younger Ashcroft echoed his father’s praises for Roberts while discussing his appointment as his new deputy chief of staff.

“The most important thing I can do is find good people of character of intelligence and wisdom who understand they work for the people of the state Missouri, and put them in a position can succeed and serve the people,” said Jay Ashcroft. “That’s what management and leading an agency is like — finding good people and putting them in the position to help the people of Missouri.”

When asked by News-Press NOW how Roberts was handling his first year in the secretary’s office, Ashcroft has nothing but high praise.

“Harry has been great and we are glad to have him,” he said. “We are going to keep moving forward to make things as good as we can for the people of the state.”

While a candidate for state senate, Roberts spent time touring the district with former Missouri governor, U.S. senator and U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft. That included an ice cream social at Civic Center Park where the two scooped out frozen treats for supporters in St. Joseph.

“Harry is the kind of person Missouri needs and America needs to confront the opportunities of our future,” Ashcroft said in an interview last year. “This candidate is the kind of person that I want to be making decisions on behalf of my children and grandchildren in the Missouri Senate.”

Roberts pointed to his career in business and in government as assets that he has brought to the secretary of state’s office, which includes overseeing elections and a litany of other administrative duties.

“It’s truly been a privilege to serve in his office and to serve the people of Missouri,” said Roberts.


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Google adds 'speed traps' to maps, but will it impact law enforcement?

If you have Google Maps, you may soon notice a new feature that will alert you if a “speed trap” is ahead.

Android devices already have the feature, and Google Product Manager Sandra Tseng said the feature is rolling out on iOS devices.

Buchanan County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Thomas Cates said he’s seen the new feature in action himself.

“People use Google Maps and all types of mapping software frequently out in the county,” Cates said. “It says there’s a certain speed trap on a particular highway.”

Missouri State Highway Patrol Sergeant Jake Angle said he’s aware of the feature, but doesn’t expect it to make much of a difference in the patrol’s operations.

“I have to be honest I haven’t really seen it (impact us),” Angle said. “Our mission is pretty clear cut: it’s highway safety, plain and simple.”

But it’s not just rhetoric. Angle said the idea of a “speed trap” is often just that — an idea.

“Easily, 95 percent of our enforcement is moving radar,” Angle said. “So we’re not ever really sitting in one location.”

“Whether Google or any other app is putting our locations out there, it doesn’t really deter what we do,” he said. “We do some stationary enforcement, obviousl,y but the bulk of it is done as moving enforcement.”

Cates said the Sheriff’s Department also doesn’t adhere to the Hollywood idea of speed traps.

“It’s kind of a misnomer in this jurisdiction,” he said. “All of our traffic enforcement is safety-minded, where our cars are staying mobile or patrolling a particularly dangerous part of the county where we’ve seen accidents.”

“Speed traps as they exist in popular media, they don’t really exist around here,” Cates said.

Both Cates and Angle agreed apps like Google Maps can be beneficial for real-time traffic information to avoid congestion, but neither recommended taking your eyes off the road to make a virtual report.

“If there’s an app out there that’s helping people that’s great, but I recommend obeying all traffic laws,” Angle said.

Tseng said Google is just making things easier and giving people options.

“Google Maps has always helped people get from point A to B in the easiest way possible,” Tseng said. “This feature has been one of our most popular on Android, and we’re excited to expand it to iOS.”

Google isn’t the first app to add the feature, Waze has had the feature for some time. Waze was acquired by Google in 2013.

“I still run mapping applications when I’m trying to find certain houses out in the county,” Cates said. “I think anytime you have a real time, third-person view of where you’re going it can keep you safer.”


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Treaty's impact extends to St. Joseph

Few people may have noticed the jet airplane in St. Joseph airspace early in the evening of May 14.

A closer inspection would have revealed the Russian tri-color on its tail. The Tupolev Tu-154 arrived at Rosecrans Memorial Airport to conduct unarmed treaty verification flights over the United States, part of the Open Skies Treaty that’s now a source of political debate in Washington, D.C.

A few eagle-eyed observers did call to ask if a Russian plane was flying over St. Joseph. The answer was yes.

“The 139th has been able to accommodate Open Skies Treaty missions that involve Rosecrans Air National Guard Base,” said Master Sgt. Michael Crane, public affairs superintendent with the 139 Airlift Wing of the Missouri Air National Guard. “It involved a Russian Federation treaty-certified Tu-154 aircraft performing Open Skies observation flights.”

Crane answered questions in email and in person about the 139th Airlift Wing’s involvement with a treaty that’s now being debated at the highest levels of the U.S. government. He explained that the treaty, signed in 1992, is meant to promote openness, transparency and mutual understanding among 34 nations.

It allows member nations to gather information about the military forces of another country, using unarmed aircraft with agreed-upon camera equipment. That means Russia is able to fly over U.S. military sites with American observers on board, with the United States granted reciprocal overflights of Russian territory.

Open Skies was signed shortly after the end of the Cold War, at a time of great optimism about U.S.-Russian relations.

“The whole purpose of this treaty is to say this is not spying,” said Melinda Kovács, a professor of political science at Missouri Western State University. “Spying is when someone didn’t agree and you agreed to send them in anyway. This treaty doesn’t sneak in anything.”

Now, like everything else with the United States and Russia, it’s complicated.

The treaty, which has been used to authorize more than 1,426 missions over various counties, has its critics. Some in the United States point to restrictions on surveillance flights over Kaliningrad, an area near Poland with a significant Russian military presence. Some suggest that similar information is available from spy satellites.

Russia’s leaders have expressed irritation that the U.S. uses Open Skies to fly over Ukraine and reaffirm American commitment to that country and its allies.

President Donald Trump already withdrew the United States from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. There’s speculation that he could announce a similar decision on Open Skies.

That has led to a backlash. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed urging Trump to remain in the treaty because it allows eyes on Russian military activities and reduces the chance of miscalculation by both sides. It was signed by former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn.

Kovács said America always has struggled to balance the responsibility of global leadership with an instinct to withdraw, but Trump appears to be accelerating the desire for isolation. Kovács grew up in Hungary during the Cold War, so on a personal level she would see the demise of the treaty and its ideals as a profound disappointment.

“One of the things I fear because of my experience with the Cold War is are we going into Cold War 2.0,” she said. “Things like this treaty that promote openness, collaboration and communication, if these things go away, I think it’s really sad. We didn’t get away from the Cold War to start it all over again.”

Media accounts and flight tracker websites documented Russia’s Open Skies plane over Puerto Rico, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Anchorage, Alaska, and Great Falls, Montana. This year, it was seen over Offutt Air Force base in Nebraska and near Area 51 in Nevada.

Crane said he isn’t sure why Rosecrans was picked to host the plane, but he believes the Russians liked the extended runway and central location. The city of St. Joseph listed planning for Open Skies as one of the issues facing Rosecrans in its 2020 aviation budget.

There’s no word on where the Russian plane headed after leaving St. Joseph. Flightradar24 shows it was in Reykjavik, Iceland, last week.