Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Brandon Teena Story

The Trial

Marvin Thomas Nissen
Marvin Thomas Nissen

Marvin Thomas Nissen was tried first, in February, 1995. His attorney's principal problem was Tom himself. Eager for publicity, Tom had given an interview to Playboy magazine in which he confessed to both the rape and his part in helping kill Teena Brandon. The prosecutor lost no time in adding the journalist to his list of witnesses, because this was an even greater find than the jailhouse snitch to whom Tom had also confessed. Tom was a self-serving blabbermouth.

Even so, the jury had trouble finding him guilty of first-degree murder in all the deaths. They deliberated for 18 hours, and finally convicted him on March 3rd of first-degree murder in the death of Teena Brandon, but second-degree murder in the deaths of Lambert and DeVine. His sentence was delayed until after John Lotter's trial, which meant he could still face the death penalty. Marvin Thomas Nissen did some quick thinking.

John Lotter's trial began on Monday, May 15, 1995. The 10 women and two men serving on the jury were brought in from Omaha and sequestered in Falls City.

Prosecutor James Elworth told jurors that there was no doubt that Lotter had been involved, and in part it was because he feared that Teena Brandon would testify against him and send him to prison for rape.

John Lotter
John Lotter

Police testified that on the night following the discovery of the murders, they found a gun and knife inside a pair of gloves in the Nemaha River, south of Falls City. The gun proved to be the one involved in the crimes, the knife's sheath bore Lotter's name, and blood on the blade proved to be the same type as Brandon's. There was psychiatric testimony to the effect that Lotter was mentally impaired and might not have been able to judge right from wrong. Yet even the psychiatrists conceded that tossing the murder weapon into the river indicated that he certainly knew that what he'd done was against the law.

John's former girlfriend, Rhonda Mackenzie, also testified that he had threatened to kill Brandon for duping them fully a week before the murders occurred. Then on the night of the murders, he woke her at 2:30 a.m. and asked her to give him an alibi. (Tom had done the same with his wife, who had noticed the clock reading 3:30 a.m.)

Then at the last minute, Tom Nissen cut a deal with the state to save his life. He took the stand. For his truthful account, nothing he said would be used against him and he would not face the death penalty. Defense attorney Mike Fabian attempted to prevent the admission of his testimony, but the judge allowed it.

Tom stated quite clearly that he and John Lotter had committed these murders together. Not only that, they'd plotted for six days to kill Brandon, starting the day after they'd assaulted him. They'd gone to Brandon's home in Lincoln, Nebraska, on December 26, 1993, looking for him. The plan was to lure him to an isolated spot and then chop off his head and hands.

When their quest went sour, they sat around drinking and obsessing about what had to be done. It had been Lotter's contention, according to Tom, that a dead witness could not testify, and that was the only way to save themselves. Nissen admitted to stabbing Brandon, but said that Lotter had done all of the shooting. Nissen had stabbed Brandon after the first shot because he thought Brandon was still alive. "She was twitching," he said.

To everyone's surprise, John Lotter, who'd refused to say anything up to that point except that he was innocent, wanted to testify in his own defense. His attorney advised against it, but he insisted. On the stand, he denied every aspect of Tom Nissen's account, but was soon caught in a lie. Then when he contradicted the testimonies of upstanding, credible citizens, he made things look even worse for himself. By the end, everything he said was in doubt.

The jury took only five hours to reach a decision.

On Thursday May 25, 1995, John Lotter was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder, three counts of using a deadly weapon, and one count of burglary. The prosecutor sought the death penalty, which was automatically subject to appeal.

JoAnn Brandon went after Charles Laux, the cop who had failed to arrest Lotter and Nissen for rape. She sued him and Richardson County in the wrongful death of her child, charging that his negligence and mishandling of the case had resulted in Brandon's murder. He had actively prevented his deputies from making an arrest. Laux said that he was simply trying to avoid jumping the gun and compromising the case. A lower court dismissed the suit, but the Nebraska Supreme Court reinstated it because Laux had actually informed the perpetrators of the complaint, and then had failed to protect the victim. If the allegations were true, the justice said, "Laux laid an essential link in the chain that led to the victim's death." While the lower court conceded, they only gave part of the monetary award, since they calculated the county to be 15% at fault. That amounted to just over $17,000, an insult.

Hilary Swank as Brandon in Boys Don't Cry
Hilary Swank as Brandon in
Boys Don't Cry

However, the Nebraska Supreme Court had ruled that Laux was negligent in his duty to protect Teena Brandon. In addition, his tone in the tape-recorded interview with Brandon was "demeaning, accusatory and intimidating." They ordered the lower court to increase its damage award to JoAnn Brandon to the original amount.

Nissen appealed his case to the Supreme Court, and it was turned down.

On March 6, 2000, the Nebraska Supreme Court issued a stay of execution of the April 26 execution date.  As of this writing, he is still awaiting his fate, with appeals pending.

Fox Searchlight Pictures released a film, Boys Don't Cry, that depicts (with some liberties) Brandon's life and death.  Hilary Swank, who played the lead role, won the Academy Award for Best Actress.

 

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