Inmate drops attorneys, pleads guilty to murder in Tecumseh cellmate’s death

TECUMSEH, Neb. — Patrick Schroeder didn’t want to share a cell with Terry Berry Jr.

He told prison staff the two weren’t compatible. Berry, he said, was a loudmouth and a punk.

They had lived together less than a week in mid-April when Schroeder said he had “hit his threshold.”

On Friday, Schroeder, 40, admitted to strangling Berry, 22, with a towel at the Tecumseh State Prison.

In fairly short order at a hearing Friday morning, Schroeder dismissed his attorneys, withdrew a motion challenging the constitutionality of the state’s death penalty law and pleaded guilty to first-degree murder.

He also pleaded guilty to use of a deadly weapon to commit a felony.

His case is now headed to the death penalty phase.

The proceedings involve weighing the alleged aggravating circumstances against any mitigating circumstances that might have existed.

The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office, which is helping prosecute the case, had previously announced that capital punishment would be sought.

Prosecutors have said that aggravating circumstances existed in the crime: Schroeder’s previous murder conviction and a substantial history of serious assaultive or terrorizing criminal activity.

Schroeder indicated Friday that he wants to waive his right to have a jury decide aggravating factors against him.

District Court Judge Vicky Johnson will take up that issue at his next hearing, scheduled for Aug. 22.

She reappointed defense attorneys Sarah Newell and Todd Lancaster with the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy on the death penalty portion of the proceedings.

They declined to comment after Friday’s hearing.

A man who attended the hearing and identified himself as a Berry relative also declined to comment.

The case has raised questions about why Schroeder and Berry were put together in a cell designed for the solitary confinement of one inmate.

Schroeder is serving a life sentence for the 2006 murder of a Pawnee County farmer. Berry was sentenced for check fraud and kneeing a county jailer. At the time of his death, he was likely just days away from being released on parole.

Schroeder on Friday spoke very little. He answered a series of questions, including whether he understood that he’d be at a great disadvantage representing himself.

Schroeder said he wanted to dismiss his attorneys because he didn’t agree with their advice.

“They don’t feel comfortable going the way I want to go,” he said.

The attorneys remained at his side as “standby” counsel to give advice.

In court, Assistant Attorney General Doug Warner gave the following account of the events leading to Berry’s death:

Schroeder and Berry were placed in cell No. 16 on April 10.

Schroeder told prison staff he’d take a cellmate, but didn’t want Berry. He said Berry talked incessantly and was unclean.

On April 15, he said, Berry wouldn’t stop talking about a television show.

Schroeder said he told Berry to turn his chair around. Schroeder, sitting on the bunk bed, said he proceeded to “lock him up.”

He said he wrapped his arm around Berry’s neck and squeezed for five minutes “until his arm got tired.”

He then retrieved a towel and twisted it around Berry’s neck until he knew he was dead.

Schroeder said he tried to alert prison staff, but no one responded until a routine check.

Authorities later found a note in his cell’s trash can. It was written by Schroeder, but had been ripped up.

It read: “You really need to get Terry Berry out of my cell before he gets hurt.”

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