Man convicted in 1985 cult killings dies in Nebraska prison

AP News
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Posted: May 25, 2015 1:39 PM
Man convicted in 1985 cult killings dies in Nebraska prison

TECUMSEH, Neb. (AP) — A man who had spent three decades on Nebraska's death row for the 1985 cult killings of two people, including a 5-year-old boy, has died in prison, officials said Monday.

Michael Ryan died around 5:45 p.m. Sunday at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institutional in southeast Nebraska, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services said in a news release Monday. Tecumseh prison spokeswoman Jessica Houseman did not have a cause of death but said an autopsy would be performed.

At a hearing in March about legislation to repeal the state's death penalty, state Sen. Ernie Chambers said Ryan had terminal brain cancer. Houseman would say only that Ryan was being treated for a long-term medical condition.

Ryan was convicted in the torture and killing of 26-year-old James Thimm at a southeast Nebraska farm near Rulo, where Ryan led a cult, and in the beating death of Luke Stice, the 5-year-old son of a cult member. Ryan has been on death row since Sept. 12, 1985.

Over three days, Thimm was beaten, sexually abused, shot, stomped and partially skinned while still alive. His fingertips had been shot off on one hand.

The Ryans and about 20 cult members lived on the farm. The group hated Jews and stored weapons in preparation for a final battle between good and evil, authorities have said. Ryan told his followers that he heard the voice of God and that Thimm had angered God.

Ryan's son, Dennis Ryan, and cult member Timothy Haverkamp were sentenced to life in prison for second-degree murder in Thimm's death. Authorities said Dennis Ryan delivered the gunshot that killed Thimm after days of torture.

The younger Ryan was later released from prison after winning a new trial and being convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter. Haverkamp was released from his prison in 2009 after serving 23 years of a 10-years-to-life sentence.

Nebraska has only carried out four executions since 1973, partly because of repeated legal challenges. Ryan's case came up repeatedly as the state debated its death penalty and method of execution.

Michael Ryan was sentenced to die in 1986. The state Supreme Court rejected his first appeal in 1989 and his second appeal in 1995. When he was sentenced, Nebraska's sole means of execution was the electric chair. But after the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that death via electrocution was cruel and unusual punishment, the Legislature changed Nebraska's method of execution to lethal injection in 2009.

In 2012 Ryan challenged how Nebraska obtained one of three drugs that would have been used to execute him. A lower court denied Ryan's request without holding a hearing, and in April last year the state Supreme Court rejected his appeal.

But Nebraska had no means to execute Ryan because one of three drugs needed for lethal injection expired in 2013.

On May 14, Gov. Pete Ricketts announced that state officials had obtained all three drugs required for executions. But less than a week later, the Legislature gave final approval to a bill abolishing Nebraska's death penalty. The governor has said he intends to veto the bill on Tuesday and has been searching to switch enough votes to sustain his veto.