Ryan execution halted by Nebraska Supreme Court

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February 22, 2012 - 6:00pm

UPDATED 4:30 p.m., Feb. 23, 2012

In a one-page order issued by Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican, the court issued another stay of execution for accused murderer and cult leader Michael Ryan.

The stay was in response to an appeal filed by Ryan's attorney, who filed a motion with a judge in Richardson County requesting a hearing about issues related to the manner in which the drugs were obtained to carry out the execution.

Heavican wrote that "such a court proceeding is sufficient cause to warrant a stay" of the courts previous execution order. The ruling delaying the process set in motion in January when the state scheduled Ryan's execution for March 6, 2012. The order came just four hours after the prison officials delivered notices to selected witnesses for the event.

At a hearing before Richardson County District Judge Daniel Bryan on February 16, Ryan's attorney argued a delay in the execution was worthwhile and necessary to assure that the State of Nebraska had obtained its supply of sodium thiopental, an anesthetic, legally. The attorney representing the Nebraska State Attorney general argued the allegations of how the drug was obtained were false and the issue was only a delaying tactic. Judge Bryan took the matter under advisement. He could grant a full hearing to review the issues raised or dismiss the matter out of hand.

Here's a rundown of the current active capital punishment cases in the state.

Eleven men occupy the cells on Nebraska's death row at the State Correctional Institution in Tecumseh. This year, three of them have been actively attempting to delay or stop their execution.
 

  • Michael Ryan had been scheduled to die by lethal injection on March 6. It would have been a historic first use of the method in the state.
  • Carey Dean Moore was to have been the first to die by lethal injection last summer. He has successfully used a variety of appeals to delay his execution. He has spent more time on death row than any of the current residents.
  • The Nebraska Supreme Court heard the first appeal of Marco Enrique Torres, Jr. late last year; he's the newest of those facing a death sentence in Nebraska. The Court upheld his sentence

The state has been prepared and willing to resume the use of capital punishment since the fall of 2010. A series of legal challenges and missteps in the acquisition of the needed drugs to carry out the procedure have kept prison officials from proceeding.

Here's a summary of where each of the current cases stand.

MICHAEL RYAN:

Convicted: : 1986 in Richardson County.

The Crime: : One count first-degree murder; one count of second-degree murder of a child.

RELATED
DOCUMENTS

Read Michael Ryan's appeal for a Stay of Execution


Read the Nebraska Attorney General's Response


Read the Nebraska Supreme Court upholding the death sentence of Enrique Torres

In the mid-1980s, Michael Ryan, an unemployed truck driver, believed he had a direct connection with his god, Yahweh. He convinced a small group of followers to move onto a farm near Rulo, Neb. to prepare for what they believed to be the imminent start of the battle of Armageddon. Cult members who fell out of favor were subjected to beatings and sexual abuse. At one point, Ryan struck a five-year-old boy, Luke Stice, knocking him unconscious. No one sought medical help and the boy died. A few weeks later, one of the adults, James Thimm, was tortured for four days by Ryan and three other men. The details are horrendous. After his arrest, Ryan pled no contest in the death of the boy and was convicted of first-degree murder for killing Thimm.

The Appeal: :

The stay of execution issued by the Supreme Court was the result of the latest in a series of appeals on Ryan's behalf in both state and federal courts. To date the substance of the issues raised have been rejected by the courts, in spite of the delays. The last legal filings are in response to Nebraska's switch from the electric chair to the use of lethal injection to carry out the death penalty.

Ryan's attorney raised questions about the source of Nebraska's supply of the anesthetic drug sodium thiopental, which prison officials obtained from an overseas broker.

The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services was forced to get rid of one batch of the drug they purchased from India, apparently because they didn't follow federal prescription drug regulations. NDCS obtained a second shipment through an intermediary based in India.

Ryan's attorney, Jerry Soucie of the Commission on Public Advocacy, argues Nebraska obtained the drug illegally on both occasions, which justifies delaying the execution while reviewing whether the Department of Corrections broke any laws. (No federal or state agency seems poised to proceed with that investigation.)

The Nebraska Attorney General dismisses the entire line of appeal as "a sideshow" and insists there are no grounds for a delay based on the drugs' point of origin or how they were acquired.

The Status: :

The Attorney General's arguments prevailed at every stage of the process. So far.

In January, the Nebraska Supreme Court rejected Ryan's arguments without comment, allowing the execution to proceed as planned on March 6. His attorney responded by filing a new appeal in the Richardson County District Court (where the crimes originally occurred) in an effort to get a judge to reconsider sentencing based on the allegations about the drug's origins. The judge's ruling is expected any time.

CAREY DEAN MOORE:

Convicted: : 1980 in Douglas County

The Crime: : Two counts of first-degree murder During two separate robberies in 1979, Moore murdered a pair of Omaha cab drivers, Reuel Van Ness and Maynard Helgeland. Because Moore admitted he targeted the men because they were older and would be unlikely to defend themselves, the killings were considered especially heinous.

The Appeal: : The Supreme Court set an execution date last year, but later delayed it while the justices reviewed the issues raised about the use of lethal injection. They have since rejected all pleas for a stay of execution. His attorney requested Douglas County District Judge Thomas Otepka reconsider the death sentence. In denying the request, Otepka stated the court's duty was to determine only whether Moore had received a fair trial before he was sentenced. Otepka ruled Moore had been treated fairly.

The Status: : As of now, the State has not set a new date for Moore's execution, but nothing currently stands in the way..

Marco Enrique Torres, Jr. :

Convicted: : 2009 in Hall County

The Crime: : Two counts of first-degree murder

In 2007, Torres murdered two men, Edward Hall and Timothy Donohue, in a home in Grand Island, Neb., apparently as part of a robbery, and fled to Texas. The sentencing judges found both the murderers' attempt to conceal the crime, combined with the brutal nature of the homicide, to warranted the death penalty.

The Appeal: :

In Torres' first appeal to the Nebraska Supreme Court, he argued 11 separate issues that entitled him to a new trial or a reduced sentence. These included the judges' failure to consider methamphetamine use as a reason Torres was not in control of himself at the time of the crimes.

The Status: :

While finding some "harmless" errors in the manner in which evidence was allowed into the trial, the Nebraska Supreme Court found all 11 of Torres' claims to be "without merit."

Torres is the most recent addition to Nebraska's death row.

DEATH ROW:

There are currently 11 men on Nebraska's death row.

Three of them were involved in the killing of five people during a 2002 bank robbery in Norfolk.

One, John Lotter, murdered Brandon Teena, the transgendered subject of the film "Boys Don't Cry," and two of his friends.

Six of them are accused of murdering children.

No one has been executed in Nebraska since 1997. If no stay of execution is issued, Michael Ryan will become only the 24th person in the state and the first by way of lethal injection.

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