Defense attorneys made a rare request in the death penalty case against the accused ringleader in the slayings of a family of Brazilian missionaries.
They urged a judge to sequester jurors for the entire four-week murder trial of Jose “Carlos” Oliveira-Coutinho. That would be on top of any sequestration for jury deliberations — which happens fairly often in death penalty cases.
Such a move would not only be unusual, it would be expensive.
Douglas County officials estimated such a sequestration could cost the county upward of $100,000 for hotel rooms and overtime pay for sheriff's deputies who would monitor the jurors.
Horacio Wheelock and Todd Lancaster, court-appointed attorneys for Oliveira, said expense should not be a factor in the judge's decision.
Instead, the attorneys argued, the judge should consider the potential damage that trial publicity could do to the defendant's right to a fair trial.
Douglas County District Judge Thomas Otepka took the issue — and several other pretrial motions — under advisement.
Oliveira is expected to go on trial in September on three counts of first-degree murder. Prosecutors say he orchestrated the December 2009 killings of the Szczepaniks at the former Paul VI High School they were renovating in South Omaha.
Prosecutors allege Oliveira and two other workers beat Vanderlei Szczepanik to death in a dispute over their pay. The three then killed Vanderlei's wife, Jaqueline Szczepanik, and the couple's 7-year-old son, Christopher, by hanging them in a stairwell at the school where the family was living, prosecutors say.
Authorities recovered Christopher's body from the bottom of the Missouri River last fall. His parents' bodies have not been found.
If convicted, Oliveira would face life in prison or the death penalty.
His attorneys not only want jurors sequestered; they want the case moved to another county because of pretrial publicity.
Prosecutors Jim Masteller and John Alagaban objected to each request. The prosecutors pointed out that Douglas County is the biggest and most diverse county in the state and as such is more than capable of producing a quality jury pool.
They noted several high-profile cases for which trials were not moved and jurors were not sequestered for the entire trial. Among them: The trial of Roy Ellis in the death of 12-year-old Amber Harris, and the trial of Christopher Edwards in the death of Jessica O'Grady.
Lancaster argued that the traditional admonishments to jurors to avoid any news coverage are inadequate, especially with the proliferation of access to news on phones and electronic devices,
“It seems that this (area) has been inundated with stories about this case,” Lancaster said. “Unless you've been living under a rock, you've heard about this case.”
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