Death penalty overturned in I-80 Good Samaritan murder

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RENO, NV (KOLO)-- A Serbian national who killed a Good Samaritan Aug. 24, 1994, who stopped along Interstate 80 east of Sparks to help him, has had his death penalty overturned.

Avram Vineto Nika. Nevada Department of Corrections photo.

U.S. District Court Judge James Mahan upheld the guilty verdict against Avram Vineto Nika, 49, so he remains convicted of the murder of Edward Smith of Fallon.

But Mahan ruled Nika within 60 days must get a non-death penalty prison sentence or must be scheduled for a new penalty hearing. Jury selection for the new penalty hearing must start within 180 days.

The Washoe County District Attorney’s Office said Wednesday it had not reviewed the decision and was not ready to comment on what it would do next.

Death sentence reversal makes murder victim's wife relive loss

Smith’s widow, Tracy Smith, vowed she will be at Nika’s sentencing hearing. Edward Smith served 15 years with the U.S. Air Force and was with the Nevada Air Guard’s Desert High Rollers at the time of his murder.

“This town will know me. Reno will know me. Because I have to be there to represent Sgt. Edward B. Smith. Lovingly known as Smitty,” Tracy Smith said Wednesday.

Nika’s car broke down on Interstate 80 west of the Derby Dam exit. Smith lived in Fallon but worked part-time in a Reno-area Burger King. Nika killed Smith when he stopped to help him and took Smith’s car. Smith’s body was found the next day next to a fence between the railroad tracks and Interstate 80.

Chicago authorities found Nika with Smith’s car less than a week later.

A Washoe District Court jury convicted Nika of murder in July 1995 and sentenced him to death.

Nika’s appeals wound through state and federal courts. Mahan ruled on Nika’s habeas corpus appeals. He ruled that Nika’s lawyers at trial did not present information about Nika’s tough childhood that may have swayed the jury to not give him the death penalty. Nika lived in poverty, the judge wrote. The family burned manure for fuel and he begged for food. His father was an alcoholic who beat Nika’s mother and his children.

Additionally, the judge ruled that Nika’s lawyers failed to tell Nika he could contact the Yugoslavian consulate for help with an interpreter and get help mitigating the case against him, as allowed by the Vienna Convention.

“The Court finds that Nika's trial counsel unreasonably failed, before trial, to advise Nika of his rights under the Vienna Convention and to contact the Yugoslavian consulate, and that, if Nika's trial counsel had contacted the Yugoslavian consulate before trial, and had, with the assistance of the consulate, developed evidence for presentation in mitigation in the penalty phase of Nika's trial, there is a reasonable probability that the outcome of the penalty phase of Nika's trial would have been different,” the judge wrote.

The Serbian government has sought to intervene on Nika's case.

The judge's ruling appalled her, Tracy Smith said.

"We trusted this Battle Born state. We've been waiting for our turn," Tracy Smith said. The judge "overturned something that my daughter and I have waited for. Just because it has been 25-plus years for everybody else doesn't mean that we have forgotten anything."

She said Nika winked at her during the trail and blew kisses at her.

Tracy Smith wondered why the judge would care more about what happened to Nika in Europe. "But what about the good man that fought for this country? And what kind of hell . . . I've had to live through all these years without him. We were high school sweethearts," Tracy Smith said.

She voted to be at the death penalty hearing, if it is held, to fight for Edward Smith.

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