Ellis given death

Mariah Davis (left) and Jasmine Saunders (right) embrace Jalesa Harris, Amber's sister, after leaving the courtroom. Roy Ellis was sentenced to death for the murder of Amber Harris at the Douglas County Courthouse in Omaha on Friday.

The Omaha World-Herald

OMAHA - He has spent a lifetime in crime - so much so that the 10-time felon has called prison home for all but five of his adult years.

Now, Roy Ellis, 55, can list a new return address on his inmate mail.

Death row.

A three-judge panel sentenced Ellis today to death for the Nov. 29, 2005, killing of Amber Marie Harris, 12. After Amber got off a school bus, Ellis snatched her, shattered her skull and dumped her body in a shallow grave in Hummel Park north of Omaha.

The judges - Greg Schatz, Michael Coffey and Patrick Mullen, all of Douglas County - ruled that Ellis' slaughter of Amber and his life of crime outweighed his pleas for mercy based on his contention that he has suffered mental illness.

In today's hourlong hearing, Schatz rattled off a detailed description of the brutal crime, including the condition of Amber's remains, the discovery of her book bag and bloody clothes at a crack house that Ellis used to frequent, Ellis' phone calls from jail and the explicit comments Ellis made to other inmates and correctional officers at the Douglas County Jail.

"A young girl was taken to a remote area, had her clothes removed, was sexually assaulted and was murdered," Schatz said. "It is the sentencing panel's conclusion that the presence of these aggravating factors is sufficient to justify the imposition of death."

Prosecutors and Amber's family praised the decision.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, who helped send child murderer Arthur Lee Gales to death row, said he could imagine no other outcome for Ellis.

"On the spectrum of criminals, Roy Ellis is as bad as it gets," Kleine said. "If anybody deserves the maximum sentence, it's this guy. He's preyed on people his entire life."

Though Nebraska currently doesn't have a means of execution - an issue that already has prompted Ellis' attorneys to question the constitutionality of his punishment - Ellis now becomes the 11th man on death row.

After convicting him of first-degree murder in April, jurors had found that Ellis committed two of the three aggravating factors that prosecutors alleged - that Amber's death was "especially heinous and cruel" and that Ellis had a substantial history of assaultive behavior. They deadlocked on whether Ellis killed Amber to cover up another crime.

Ellis' attorneys, Patrick Dunn and Jerry Hug, had put a doctor on the stand to testify that Ellis had battled mental illness for most of his life - including his contention that he heard voices of the devil. However, Ellis' family and state psychiatrists who evaluated Ellis suggested that he was faking his mental illnesses.

Kleine also doubted Ellis' claims of mental illness - noting that they emerged only after he was caught in his crimes.

Kleine, who first prosecuted Ellis in the early 1980s, noted that Ellis committed nearly every crime imaginable - and some unimaginable.

Robbery. Theft. Drug dealing. Evidence tampering. Assault.

The repeated rapes of his two stepdaughters from the time they were 12 and 14.

And then, when he was 52, Ellis capped that life of crime with one of the worst acts Kleine said he has prosecuted.

"He got what he deserved," Kleine said.

Unfortunately, Kleine and Chief Deputy Douglas County Attorney Brenda Beadle said the sentence doesn't restore the one thing the Harrises deserve.

Their bright, feisty daughter.

The artsy, creative and spunky seventh-grader, who would have turned 16 this year, had been tutoring another student after school before she took the late bus home that night.

Fortunately, Melissa Harris said, her family is beginning to focus more on the spirited way that Amber lived rather than the wicked way she died. They still laugh at memories of Amber hiking up her pants, 6 inches above the waist, and waddling around the house as "Little Old Man." And they long for all the times that she awoke early and filled the house with whatever song was in her head.

At the same time, the questions of "What if?" and "Why?" continue to haunt.

"It's just tortured Michael and I," Melissa Harris said. "I have to admit, no punishment would ever be good enough for me - unless he was to die the same death and go through the same fear she did.

"And still, that wouldn't bring her back. It wouldn't fill this hole in our lives."

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