Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Brandon Teena Story

Did He or Didn't He?

John Lotter has been on death row for eleven years for the high-profile shooting of Teena Brandon, who passed herself as Brandon Teena, and for killing two other people on New Year's Eve in 1993 in Humboldt, Neb. At Lotter's trial, Marvin "Tom" Nissen testified that Lotter had shot the trio of victims and that he, Nissen, had merely stabbed Brandon after she was dead, to make sure. This month, according to the Omaha World-Herald, it became public record that Nissen had recanted that testimony a few months ago and, therefore, Lotter now seeks his freedom.

John Lotter
John Lotter

Lotter has claimed all along that he did not kill anyone. He further maintains he was not even at the crime scene. In 2003, his request for DNA testing to demonstrate that Nissen was the shooter was denied, on the grounds that blood on Nissen's clothing would not alone prove he was the shooter. At that point, things looked fairly hopeless for Lotter's appeals, but this past July, the situation apparently changed.

Nissen had escaped the death penalty in 1995, testifying that Lotter was the gunman and getting himself three life sentences. However, now Nissen is revisiting his account. The Lincoln Journal Star reported this month that Nissen has given a sworn statement in which he recanted his original testimony against Lotter. Nissen himself claimed to have shot and stabbed Brandon, and to have shot and killed both Lisa Lambert and Phillip Devine because they were witnesses that had to be eliminated. He said that Lotter had been going to help, and that the assault had been his idea, as reported in the New York Sun, but he couldn't follow through because his gun jammed. In addition to Nissen's statement, four of his cellmates over the past decade have said that he admitted to them he was the shooter.

Lotter's attorney has put things in motion to get him a hearing for a new trial, but the attorney general, Jon Bruning is resistant. Just because Nissen says it doesn't make it so. Nissen can't be retried and resentenced, so there's no risk to him to change his statement to aid Lotter. He could just be making this claim now to get Lotter off death row. In any event, Nissen still maintains that Lotter was there and was in on the plan. Under Nebraska law, that makes Lotter equally culpable, regardless of who actually pulled the trigger.

Even if Lotter's sentence were commuted, says Bruning, he should remain in prison. Teena's mother feels the same way.

Lotter recognizes that even with Nissen's change of story, there's little chance of winning an appeal. Yet he plans to keep trying to exonerate himself and win his freedom. His hearing will occur in the near future.

 

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