Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Cult Killer Ryan: Review Legality of Lethal Injection

Nebraska wants to proceed with its first execution by lethal injection, but whether the State has... or can obtain... the drugs it needs legally is up in the air.  During a hearing before the Nebraska Supreme Court today Justice William Connolly asked if the Department of Corrections had the sodium thiopental it needed.  Assistant Attorney General James D. Smith responded: "I have not inquired about it for this hearing. I am not able to say that we are in a position to meet those requirements."  

Most of the arguments heard today turned on whether Ryan was using the correct legal pathway to challenge the method of execution.  

Michael Ryan (Photo: DOC)
Ryan was sentenced to death in 1986 for murdering two people on a farm near Rulo, Neb. which he ruled over as a near-messianic cult leader.  After a stay in execution in 2012 Ryan filed a post-conviction appeal in Richardson County, where the crime occurred.  The judge dismissed the argument, stating it was not the appropriate way to challenge the method of execution, only validity of the sentence itself.  The State Attorney General wants that ruling to stand.

During the Supreme Court hearing today Ryan's attorney, Robert Kortus, stated while he believes drugs bought by the State of Nebraska for lethal injection were purchased illegally, that claim, wasn't "the main story" he hoped to tell the court.  Kortus represents Ryan through the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy.  

Kortus asked the Court to take a broader view and to include reviewing the method of execution as part of the second legal pathway open after the verdict has been rendered:  post-conviction relief.  It would be a benefit to the high court, according to Kortus, because it would give the Justices  "the right to review the legality of the method of execution used by the state" in a manner more often left to Federal judges.  

Arguing for the Nebraska Attorney General's office, James Smith said the courts had already rejected that approach.  He noted the Supreme Court would have to over rule three of their own rulings in death row cases issued in the last ten years.

Sodium Thiopental (Evidence Photo)
Most of the publicity and debate over Nebraska's death penalty of late has been how and where the drugs were obtained.  Much of the material filed in court emphasizes the state’s bungled attempt to acquire the pharmaceuticals needed to carry out the execution.  

Ryan's pivotal argument focused on whether there a risk that the drug or drugs used could result in “cruel and unusual punishment” which would be forbidden by the state’s (and U.S.) Constitution.  There was little discussion of that during today's hearing. 

Meanwhile, the source of Nebraska's lethal injection drugs remains murky.  The current supply purchased by the Department of Corrections has likely had to have been thrown out because they are past their legal expiration dates.  

One problem was the supply chain the state chose to use to get its supply of the crucial anesthetic drug sodium thiopental.  Nebraska used an overseas broker who supplied drugs manufactured by an Indian pharmaceutical maker.  The drugs were not approved or tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  Questions remain as to whether that step was necessary.  In addition, the Swiss company that made the drug maker claimed the drugs had been stolen and should never have been sold for use in executions. 

Nebraska Attorney General  Jon Bruning earlier dismissed the entire line of appeal as "a sideshow.”

Instead discussion focused on previous Supreme Court rulings limiting the legal pathways death row inmates could follow to challenge the method of execution.  In three separate rulings the Justices maintained they could only be heard as a civil rights claim.  These matters are largely handled in the Federal Courts.
In the 1980s Ryan, an unemployed truck driver, developed strong anti-government beliefs and his own warped interpretation of the Old Testament.  A small group came together on a communal farm in rural Richardson County.  Eventually two members of the group were murdered.

Luke Stice, the five-year-old son of a cult member was struck and killed by Ryan.  Later the cult leader announced one man, James Thimm, was no longer a true believer. Ryan oversaw a sickening day-long session of torture that lead to Thimm’s death. Four other men were convicted of taking part. Ryan was sentenced to death.  

The state has not been able to implement any execution since 1997 when Robert Williams became the last man to die in the state’s electric chair.