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Neb. Changes Death Penalty Method

August 3, 2001

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) _ The Nebraska Supreme Court overturned the state’s method of sentencing killers to death Friday, throwing out the use of three-judge panels who were not required to reach a unanimous decision.

The high court ruled in the cases C. Michael Anderson and Peter Hochstein, who have been on death row for 23 years for the 1975 contract killing of an Omaha real estate developer Ronald Abboud.

Nebraska law allows the trial judge or a panel of three judges, including the trial judge, to decide if a death sentence is warranted in first-degree murder cases.

After an earlier appeal, Anderson, 49, and Hochstein, 46, were resentenced to death in the electric chair on 2-1 vote by such a panel.

Attorneys for the two men argued that the panel’s split decision indicated doubt in their sentence and a flaw in Nebraska’s system of three-judge sentencing panels in capital cases.

The high court agreed.

``We conclude that the impositions of sentences of death based on non-unanimous determinations of three-judge sentencing panels designated under″ state law ``were error,″ wrote Judge Lindsey Miller-Lerman.

State law says that ``after hearing all the evidence ... the judge or judges shall fix the sentence at either death or life imprisonment.″

Defense attorney Alan Stoler had argued that the statute does not allow for a majority of the judges to set the penalty at death.

``Where three judges cannot agree on the imposition of the death penalty, a life sentence must be imposed as there is not a determination by the `judges’ that death is appropriate,″ he said.

The panel that sentenced Anderson and Hochstein unanimously agreed that Abboud’s killing was a murder for hire and sufficient to justify a death sentence. However, it was divided on whether a lack of criminal history was a strong mitigating factor in weighing the death penalty. The panel also was divided on whether the death sentences were excessive for the penalty imposed in similar cases.