Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Nebraska Supreme Court Holds Reporter Can’t See Executed Prisoner’s Drawings

by Christopher Zoukis

In August 2015, the Nebraska Supreme Court denied a reporter’s attempt to obtain “graphic” drawings made by infamous executed child-killer John Joubert. Despite the efforts of state prison officials, however, the drawings were eventually obtained and published.

The reporter, Mark Pettit, was an investigative journalist when Joubert abducted, tortured and killed two boys, Danny Joe Eberle, 13, and Christopher Walden, 12, in September and December 1983, respectively. Joubert was arrested the following year; he had also murdered another boy in Maine several years earlier.

While Joubert was on death row, Pettit interviewed him several times and ultimately published a book about the murders in 1990 titled A Need to Kill. During the interviews, Joubert admitted that he continued to have fantasies about killing children and had illustrated those fantasies in two graphic drawings which had been confiscated by prison officials.

Prior to Joubert’s execution in 1996, Pettit attempted to gain access to the drawings. He was rebuffed by the warden despite presenting a letter from Joubert authorizing their release. As the 30th anniversary of Joubert’s heinous crimes approached, Pettit tried again. He was again denied but this time he filed suit, asking a court to order the release of the drawings.

Pettit, who now operates an Atlanta marketing firm, argued that the state statute which allowed the director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) to withhold the drawings also allowed for their release by a court order “for good cause shown.” He argued that the drawings were “significant,” “historical” and “educational,” and as such, good cause existed for their release. The county attorney and a former investigator in the case agreed.

The NDCS director, however, opposed Pettit’s request. He stated that any social benefit of the drawings would be heavily outweighed by the harm they would cause. He also cited the profit motive Pettit had in obtaining the graphic drawings.

The district court entered an order in favor of Pettit, but on August 7, 2015 the Nebraska Supreme Court reversed. Looking closely at the statute, the Court found significant differences between the confidentiality of the documents in the NDCS file and what are typically considered “open” records. Moreover, the “good cause” contemplated by state law was interpreted to mean “a logical or ‘legally sufficient reason’ in light of all of the surrounding facts and circumstances and in view of the very narrow access intended by the legislature.”

Reviewing Pettit’s request, the state Supreme Court did not find good cause. Relying heavily on the fact that the statute was not an open records provision, the Court held that the historical or social value of the drawings wasn’t enough to overcome their confidentiality. See: Pettit v. Neb. Dep’t of Correctional Services, 291 Neb. 513, 867 N.W.2d 553 (Neb. 2015).

Meanwhile, though, an “anonymous source” within the NDCS, who apparently disagreed with the department’s position, provided copies of Joubert’s drawings to Pettit. They were included in a new version of his book, titled A Need to Kill: The Death Row Drawings – the release of which was delayed until after Nebraska voters reinstated the death penalty in November 2016. Just over 60% of voters elected to reinstate capital punishment.

The new version of Pettit’s book includes two chapters about his 20-year effort to obtain Joubert’s drawings, as well as an analysis by Keith E. Howard, a criminal profiler.

According to Howard, Joubert was a “sexual sadist, an organized offender and a pedophile” who derived pleasure from eliciting fear from his victims. A 15-year veteran of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation who was trained by the FBI in behavioral science, Howard said Joubert was arrested “in full bloom as a serial killer,” and that the drawings “leave no lingering doubt” that he “would have continued to kill” if ever released from prison. 

“There is evil out there, and this is proof of it,” Pettit stated.

Art Harris, a former reporter for the Washington Post and a CNN investigative correspondent who has won two EMMY awards while covering dozens of high-profile criminal cases, agreed that the graphic drawings needed to be released.

“Mark has done a rare thing – he’s uncovered blockbuster evidence about a serial killer’s evil that officials tried to hide from the public,” said Harris. 

Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov, who investigated the Joubert case, concurred. “I think we have an obligation to help people understand what goes on and why it goes on and the fact that it really does happen,” he stated.

Copies of the drawings were also turned over to the FBI. The new version of Pettit’s book that includes Joubert’s drawings was released in December 2016. 



As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login