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Annual Simants' review: Will stay incarceratedTell North Platte what you think
Erwin Charles Simants

For the 26th time in 29 years, since Erwin Charles Simants was found not guilty by reason of insanity for killing six members of a Sutherland family, the court reviewed his mental condition Wednesday.

And, like in previous years, little has changed in Simant’s psychological profile.

Simants, now 61, has been housed in the Lincoln Regional Center for nearly 30 years, since 1979. The mental facility is run by the Nebraska Department of Corrections.

Each year Simants undergoes a mental evaluation and judicial review to determine if he is sane enough to be granted more freedom, or even released. The review is required under a 1981 state statute.

In recent years, he has gained just about as much freedom as is possible at the center. He can take trips with supervision and lives in the most unrestrictive area of the center.

“Mr. Simants continues to be free of any active signs of mental illness,” wrote Y. Scott Moore, psychiatrist at the center to Lincoln County District Judge Donald Rowlands.

“He continues to work at the canteen, which is something he enjoys.”

Moore said Simants has outings with appropriate supervision and is taking no psychotropic medication. His only medications is for his diabetes and his health is good, Moore wrote.

As he did last year, Moore requested that the center be allowed to find placement for Simants within the community.

Judge Rowlands has so far denied that request.

But Rowlands did grant another request from the center. At the request of the center and area law enforcement in Lincoln and Lancaster County, Rowlands dropped the requirement that a first class letter be sent to all law enforcement agencies from the center after each of Simants’ outings.

The center will still be required to alert law enforcement prior to any outing Simants’ participants in and is still required to notify them should anything happen.

Moore wrote to Judge Rowlands that “there is no direct clinical evidence that Mr. Simants is currently a mentally ill, dangerous person.”

Moore also asked the court to allow Simants to visit off-grounds in the company of and under the supervision of family members.

Rowlands has denied that request each time.

Beyond that, little changed this year in Simants’ incarceration.

The crime

On Oct. 18, 1975, Erwin Charles Simants, then 29, walked across the street from his house in Sutherland and killed six of his neighbors in cold blood.

Simants murdered Henry Kellie, 66, his wife Audrey, 57, their granddaughter, Florence, 10, and two other grandchildren, Deanna, 7, and, Daniel, 5. All were found dead in their home. The father of the two youngest grandchildren, 32-year-old David, who apparently managed to call for an ambulance, died shortly after being taken to the hospital in North Platte.

A statewide manhunt was ordered and people were told to stay in their homes.

The next morning, Simants surrendered to authorities.

Simants stood trial for six counts of first-degree murder in January 1976. Testimony from 24 prosecution witnesses and 11 defense witnesses lasted a week.

Simants admitted killing the Kellies.

Defense lawyers argued Simants was insane. A psychologist testified that Simants had an IQ of 75 and was schizoid and psychotic.

The jury returned a verdict after deliberating only one day -- guilty on all six counts.

On Jan. 29, 1976, Lincoln County District Judge Hugh Stuart sentenced Simants to death in the electric chair.

But in 1979, Simants won a new trial on grounds of jury tampering. A juror reported to Lincoln County District Judge Hugh Stuart that the Lincoln County Sheriff, Hop Gilster, had played cards with the jurors at the Howard Johnson motel while they were sequestered.

Stuart threw out the conviction and ordered a new trial. This time the trial was held in Lancaster County to protect jurors from exposure to a crush of pretrial publicity.

Simants pleaded innocent by reason of insanity. Defense lawyers stipulated that Simants had murdered the Kellies but argued he was insane at the time.

Prosecutors allowed a practicing psychologist to remain on the jury.

On Oct. 17, 1979, one day short of the fourth anniversary of the Kellie murders, the jury acquitted Simants by reason of insanity.

Simants was sent to the forensic unit of the Lincoln Regional Center, where he has been ever since.

Stuart retired from the bench in 1986 and was replaced by Judge Rowlands. Responsibility for the Simants hearing and custody since then has rested with Rowlands.

Simants appealed Rowlands’ 1994 ruling that he remained mentally ill and dangerous, saying the decision violated his constitutional rights.

Simants’ annual reviews were canceled in 1995 and 1996 due to that appeal.

The review

Each year the court reviews the Simants' mental condition.

Lincoln County Public Defender Bob Lindemeier represents Simants.

Simants rarely attends the hearings and did not attend Wednesday’s hearing in Lincoln County District Court.

Lindemeier has argued that Simants doesn’t meet the standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court to remain in custody and, at some point, he would “ethically have to take that up with the court.”

That was a shot over the bow that Lindemeier might someday appeal to a higher court than Rowlands’ to have Simants released from the confines of the LRC forensic unit.

Lindemeier explained that the Supreme Court has required that a person be both mentally ill and dangerous to remain in custody.

“The standard is that they have to show both criteria,” Lindemeier said. He said those criteria are not met in Simants’ case.

“We’ve been kind of passive on this, but it’s getting to the point where we have to do something,” Lindemeier said. He said it only makes sense to work toward his client’s release.

Simants has been an ideal patient at the center and probably even knows where the keys are but has never acted on that knowledge, Lindemeier said.

Lindemeier said Simants has no place to go and no means to take care of himself, but not to plan for his eventual release would not be fair to him or to the general public.

in the electric chair.

For years, Simants was unable to even so much as go outside the Lincoln Regional Center, but he has gained more freedom in recent years.

Two years ago, Simants was granted the right to actually leave the center once a week, only during daylight, with no more than six other inmates, under the direct supervision of the LRC staff who would have cell phones. Also, Simants’ picture is on file with the Lincoln police, the Lancaster Sheriff’s office and the Nebraska State Patrol. Staffers had to notify law enforcement when he was leaving the LRC, where he was going, when he would return and what he was wearing.

Last year, Simants was granted permission to travel throughout the state but only accompanied by an LRC staff member and meeting all of the qualifications above. He can now leave the center with seven other inmates and two supervisory personnel.

Doctors who have examined Simants recently have continued to recommend fewer restrictions on Simants and more freedom.

Last year, Rowlands accepted the testimony of Simants’ psychiatrists Dr. Louis C. Martin and Dr. Y. Scott Moore that Simants has been an exemplary patient for more than 25 years at the center, is not aggressive and has never sought to escape from the facilities or from any group outing.

Nothing another lawyer wouldn't do

Lindemeier has been defending Simants for 16 years as the Lincoln County public defender. He said not everyone understands why he represents Simants.

“By law I have to represent him unless there was some sort of ethical conflict,” Lindemeier said. “The public defender’s office has represented him from the beginning in the 1970s.”

Lindemeier said the court appointed the public defender’s office and that the Legislature determines what types of cases the public defender takes.

Defending Simants hasn’t made Lindemeier, who by all accounts is a compassionate man, many friends.

“I get hate mail all the time,” he said.

Lindemeier said he isn’t taking any extraordinary steps in his advocacy of Simants.

“I don’t think I’m doing anything any other public defender wouldn’t do,” Lindemeier said. “It’s clear by the evidence that the day is coming where we can’t hold him in there any longer. I believe it should be a gradual reintegration.”

Both Lindemeier and Lincoln County Attorney Jeff Meyer agreed that the court should request more detailed descriptions from the LRC on options for Simants’ eventual release.

“He is not being treated for any active mental illness,” Lindemeier said. “He’s just being housed down there. At some point he will be released. We need to plan for it.”

Lindemeier said Simants has become “institutionalized” and would not be able to function in the world on his own. He said he would like to see Simants in a less supervised setting but with some kind of monitoring involved.

Meyer said he is concerned about public safety, and he believes Simants remains dangerous.

The only surviving Kellie family member comments

The only surviving member of the Henry Kellie family is resigned about the eventual release of Erwin Charles Simants.

Audrey Brown, the oldest daughter of Henry and Audrey Kellie, lived in Colorado with her husband Melvin that October night in 1975 when her family was brutally murdered.

With only two exceptions, Brown has attended every single mental health hearing held for Simants in the last 28 years. She said she has made the effort in remembrance of her family members.

Brown said she is not surprised that Simants could someday be released from confinement in the Lincoln Regional Center.

“There’s not much we can do about it,” Brown said this week. “I just hope that they’ll put him someplace where he’s watched.”

Brown said she hopes officials can find a place where Simants will be cared for but that will keep the general public safe.

“I realize that the man has no training and couldn’t make a living,” Brown said. “He had difficulties in society before he committed the crime. That was part of his problem.”

Brown has said in the past that she has never understood how two psychiatrists could examine the same person and come up with opposite results. She has also expressed fear that Simants could commit the same crimes again if he drinks alcohol or takes drugs again.

But she’s also realistic.

“I guess at this point we have to do what’s best for Simants but we also have to consider everyone else’s safety,” Brown said.

The cost of housing Simants

The cost to house Irwin Charles Simants in the Lincoln Regional Center’s forensic unit, a mental health facility, for the past 26 years is $1.86 million, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

Through June of 2005, Simant’s total cost to the state including housing, meals, medical expenses and psychological evaluations and testing, have averaged $71,879.27 annually, according to figures released by the HHS.

The total cost to Nebraska for Simants’ stay at the LRC is $1,868,861.00. Those figures do not include the cost of housing him since July 1995.

Had Simants been sentenced to life imprisonment in maximum security at the Nebraska Department of Corrections, the estimated cost to taxpayer would have been less than 20-percent of that cost, about $363,000 over the past 26 years.

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The North Platte Bulletin - Published 12/7/2007
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