A vignette on death

This is not an excuse, this is not an explanation, this is not a denial and this is not an admission. Literary types might call it a vignette–a small illustration that fades into its background without a definite border.

Scott Greenfield wrote yesterday that “Judge Kopf gives remarkable deference to police safety . . . .” Scott H. Greenfield, Doctrine v. Realism: Naked Mudwrestling At Its Best, Simple Justice (October 7, 2014) (italics supplied by Scott). Scott and I were debating the merits of Rodriguez v. United States and whether the case was worthy of consideration by the Supreme Court. That case involved the seizure of a a large bag of methamphetamine from a car after the issuance of a traffic ticket. There were two men in the car. One cop, alone late a night in the boondocks of Nebraska, had stopped the men. I wrote about the apprehension the officer must have felt and why I thought it was appropriate for the cop to briefly detain the men until backup arrived in order to safely walk a dog around the car. That prompted Scott to write about my remarkable deference to police safety.

On April 20, 1973, it was Joan’s birthday. I didn’t know it then. We weren’t married. My first wife had not died yet–that unexpected blow would not take place until the day after Christmas in 1986. George Amos, a Nebraska State Trooper, was on patrol. He had only been with the Patrol for three years. He was 28 years old. He lived in Lexington, Nebraska with a wife and two children. In less than a year, I would move with my family to reside in Lexington and practice law with Ed Cook.

On April 20, 1973, George Amos stopped a car on Interstate 80. He suspected the driver was drunk. There were two people in the car. A man and a woman. He tried to put them both in his patrol car. One of them wrestled Amos’ service revolver away from the Trooper and shot and killed him. Later that day, the two were apprehended after another Trooper rammed their fleeing vehicle with his patrol car.

Trooper George William Amos, Jr. Nebraska State Patrol Badge No. 9

George William Amos, Jr.
Nebraska State Patrol
Badge No. 9

Because everyone acknowledged that he was the best lawyer around, Ed was appointed to represent both the man and the woman. It was an impossible conflict, but the judge stood firm and insisted that Ed soldier on. After all, Dawson County’s budget could only stand so much in the way of attorney fees. To make matters even more complicated, on April 20, 1973, the same day that Amos was killed, Nebraska’s governor signed a bill that reinstated Nebraska’s death penalty. Seemingly, both of Ed’s clients were thus exposed to the death penalty.

I was then clerking for United States Circuit Judge Donald R. Ross. Judge Ross was Ed’s brother in law. I interviewed for a job with Ed shortly after the killing and he told me of his murder case, and the horrible problem he had representing two clients in the same case who both were subject to the death penalty. For some reason, I remembered a recent Eighth Circuit habeas case that essentially held that the Sixth Amendment guarantee of the right to counsel was violated when one lawyer was appointed to represent two death-eligible defendants in the same case. With that, Ed filed a motion apprising the trial judge of the Eighth Circuit opinion, and the trial judge reluctantly ordered that Ed represent the man only. Another lawyer was appointed to represent the woman.

The man was willing to admit the shooting if the prosecutor would give his female companion a break. Plea negotiations went nowhere until Ed discovered something about the date of the killing and the date of the reinstatement of Nebraska’s death penalty statute, April 20, 1973. Although the Governor had signed the bill reinstating the death penalty on April 20, 1973, Nebraska law provided that the bill did not become effective until 12:01 AM on April 21, 1973. The killers had escaped the death penalty by mere hours. With that, the prosecutor was willing to deal and Ed’s client was quickly sentenced to life in prison. The female companion received a sentence to a term of years. Ed’s client died in prison in 1991.

As the years went by, I saw George Amos’ children around town. I am ashamed that I can’t remember their names. From reading our office file, I knew all about Amos and his family. Every time I saw the children, I thought about Trooper Amos and his senseless, brutal and unexpected death. I contemplated the terror he must have experienced when his service revolver was wrenched from his control and he knew with certainty that he was about to die.

I still think about Trooper Amos, a young man who died for nothing. I am not the only one. On April 20, 2012, 39 years after the killing, Amos’ sister wrote:

Thank you to all for remembering my brother, George Amos. It is wonderful to know that he is not forgotten and that his life and service have mattered. It is always harder at this time of year. Our mother recently passed away and it is comforting to know that both of my parents, all 4 of my grandparents and my brother are now reunited. God bless.

Officer Down Memorial Page, Reflections, Trooper George William Amos, Jr. (last accessed October 8, 2014).

That’s all there is. For Trooper Amos, there is no more.






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