Two life terms for defiant Nemnich

1978 change to law took death penalty off the table

Jerry Nemnich, 66, declares his innocence Monday, just before he is sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison by District Judge Brian Flynn. He will be eligible for parole in 20 years.



If Jerry Nemnich had committed today the pair of murders he was convicted of committing in 1975, he would face one of two possible sentences: life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty.

While the death penalty was in effect in Colorado in 1975, the state Supreme Court found it unconstitutional in 1978, making any homicides from 1975 ineligible for the death penalty. And state law at the time indicated that people convicted of first-degree murder could be eligible for parole after 10 years.

Thus why the 66-year-old Nemnich was given a sentence that leaves open the possibility, however slim, of him being released from prison.

Nemnich, who was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder, could have been ordered to serve the sentences on those counts at the same time, meaning he would be eligible for parole after a decade. But District Judge Brian Flynn agreed with District Attorney Pete Hautzinger’s argument that the murders were aggravated enough that Nemnich should serve the sentences back-to-back. That means he won’t be eligible for parole for 20 years.

In the cold, unblinking eye of the law, the 35 minutes spent Monday in Courtroom 12 on the fourth floor of the Mesa County Justice Center were long on formalities and short on emotional debate.

The only matter for the judge to decide was exactly when a convicted double-murderer will be eligible for parole that almost certainly will never be granted.

But for Barbara Rippy, the significance of this day was impossible to overstate. An opportunity to confront Jerry Nemnich. A chance to tell the man who brutally and repeatedly slashed her daughter and granddaughter exactly what she thought of him. A time to say goodbye.

The Longmont man who has been in and out of prison for a host of violent crimes he’s committed since he was 15 was sentenced Monday to two consecutive life terms in prison for the most violent of them yet: the murders of 24-year-old Linda Benson and her 5-year-old daughter, Kelley Ketchum, inside their Grand Junction apartment in 1975.

The state parole board can consider releasing Nemnich, who turned 66 on Nov. 1, in 20 years. District Attorney Pete Hautzinger said he doubts that will happen.

Nemnich was convicted Oct. 28 of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of felony murder on the strength of DNA evidence and a cold-case law-enforcement team that reopened the investigation in 2008. Blood matching Nemnich’s DNA profile was found in at least eight places inside Benson’s apartment, and his DNA was found underneath Benson’s fingernails.

Rippy, who sat silently in court every day of the nearly two-week trial, stood in front of a podium and encouraged parents in the full courtroom to hug their children because they’ll never know where evil lurks. Then, over the objection of public defender Daniel King, she faced Nemnich, calling him a “domestic terrorist.”

Rippy said she planned to visit her daughter and granddaughter’s gravesites Monday evening and light candles.

“I have never, ever told them goodbye,” she said.

Benson’s sister, Tammy Kirk, said while her sister and niece are with her in spirit and in her heart, “they’re not there to hold and to hug and laugh with.”

“What (Nemnich) did was take the gift that their lives were, the gift to all of us,” she said. “I hope Mr. Nemnich lives to be a very, very old man.”

Nemnich testified during the trial that he had gone to Benson’s apartment complex to buy marijuana and was assaulted by an unknown person with a knife inside the apartment. He claimed after wrestling the weapon away from the assailant and dumping it in the kitchen sink, he discovered the bodies. He said he fled and didn’t tell anybody out of a fear he’d be implicated.

A defiant Nemnich maintained his innocence Monday.

“With all due respect to the victims’ families,” Nemnich said, turning in his chair to face Benson’s relatives and friends, “I would like to say I understand your feelings. But I am not the person who committed this crime. I am not guilty. I believe the law will ultimately prove that.

“I am an old man. I would really hate to die in prison for something I didn’t do.”

District Judge Brian Flynn said the murders were at the top of the list of the most aggravated crimes he’s encountered in his 17 years of working in the local criminal justice system. He noted Nemnich got bolder in his crimes as time went on, contrasting his running away after raping a woman at knifepoint in Nebraska in 1960 with his relentless attack on Benson.

“He wasn’t scared when (Benson) fought back,” Flynn said. “He had absolutely no problem taking her life.”

The judge pointed out a particularly heinous detail about Kelley’s murder: the fact the knife was twisted in the child’s chest during the infliction of one of several stab wounds.

“It’s almost hard to contemplate how someone could do that to a 5-year-old child,” Flynn said.

After the sentencing, Hautzinger called Nemnich “a pure sociopath who cares about nothing and no one but himself.”

“I think that was clear during the trial and in the statements he made today,” he said.


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