Death penalty being sought in only 1 of 2 grisly small-town Nebraska killings

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  • Prosecutors are pursuing the death penalty against only one of two men accused of committing gruesome murders in or near Fort Calhoun, Nebraska, last year.
  • Kierre Williams, who stands accused of killing the Rev. Stephen Gutgsell in a church rectory, is being spared from a potential death sentence. Execution is still being sought for William Collins, who is accused of killing an elderly woman with a crossbow and slashing her throat after breaking into her home.
  • Attorneys argue that aggravating factors necessary for the death penalty are clearly present in Collins’ case, whereas they are conspicuously absent in that of Williams.

Nebraska prosecutors have decided not to seek the death penalty in the December killing of a Catholic priest inside his home but will pursue execution in the brutal killing of a retiree during a break-in that happened in the same tiny town four months earlier.

Kierre Williams has been charged with fatally stabbing the Rev. Stephen Gutgsell, 65, during a break-in at the rectory next door to St. John the Baptist Church in Fort Calhoun just hours before he was scheduled to lead mass on Dec. 10.

William Collins, meanwhile, has been charged with shooting Linda Childers, 71, with a crossbow three times in her back, neck and face before slitting her throat after breaking into her isolated home about a mile north of the community in August.

NEBRASKA WOMAN ALLEGEDLY STABBED GUESTS WHO SAID HER HOUSE WAS DIRTY

Investigators haven’t found any connection between the suspects and victims in either case, which is part of what has made them so troubling to the roughly 1,100 residents of the town that sits only 8 miles north of Omaha near the Missouri River.

Both men have pleaded not guilty to murder, burglary and weapons charges; Collins also faces assault and theft charges that he’s pleaded not guilty to. They’re both scheduled to return to court next Tuesday to ask the judge to order prosecutors to provide more details about the charges against them.

Homicide suspect William Collins is seen in a booking photo provided by the Washington County, Nebraska, Sheriff’s Office. (Washington County Sheriff’s Office via AP)

Collins’ attorney didn’t immediately respond to a message about his case Tuesday, but has previously declined to discuss the case outside of court. Judge Bryan Meismer earlier this month rejected a motion to have the death penalty ruled out as unconstitutional in Collins’ case on grounds that courts have held in other cases that Nebraska’s death penalty is constitutional and it’s too early to determine if it is being applied fairly.

Williams’ attorney, Brian Craig, said the charges against him don’t include any of the requirements under state law for someone to be sentenced to death. A sheriff’s deputy who responded to the priest’s 911 call found Williams, 43, sprawled across Gutgsell, who was bleeding profusely.

“Based on the allegations, as they’ve been set forth, there aren’t any aggravating circumstances … that would support a finding of aggravating circumstances that would subject Mr. Williams to the death penalty,” said Craig, who is with the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy that serves as the public defender in many murder cases across the state.

In the charges against Collins, prosecutors spelled out three aggravating circumstances they plan to prove to justify the death penalty if he is convicted. They say Childers’ killing was especially heinous and cruel, and she was killed partly to conceal Collins’ identity or another crime.

A family member found Childers’ body in a pool of blood in her kitchen a day after she was killed.

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Authorities have said Collins took her vehicle, purse and shotgun and fled to Texas where the 30-year-old was arrested about two weeks later.

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