The Nebraska Supreme Court on Thursday put on hold the execution of a death row inmate condemned to die for two 1985 cult-related slayings at a farm near Rulo.
Michael Ryan had been scheduled to be executed March 6. His attorney, Jerrie Soucie, with the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy, had filed a motion with the state's high court last week asking for a stay of execution while a lower court considers his request to have Ryan's sentence commuted to life in prison.
The state supreme court granted Soucie's motion Thursday, noting that Ryan's postconviction filing in Richardson County District Court was reason enough to put the execution on hold.
Ryan was convicted of torturing and killing James Thimm at a southeast Nebraska farm near Rulo in 1985, and for the beating death of the 5-year-old son of a cult member.
A message left Thursday for Soucie seeking comment was not immediately returned.
In his motion before the lower court, Soucie said Ryan's sentence should be commuted in part because the state used questionable tactics to obtain a scarce drug slated to be used in the execution.
His motion points to an assertion by the drug's Swiss manufacturer, Naari AG, that the supply of the drug sodium thiopental that Nebraska bought from a source in India was only supposed to be used for testing and evaluation as an anesthetic in Zambia. The drug is no longer manufactured in the United States and is in scarce supply worldwide.
Using the drug in Ryan's execution would violate his constitutional right to due process and equal protection, Soucie said.
Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning has previously said claims that the state's purchase of the lethal injection drug was illegal are baseless. His office has also said that Ryan has neither presented evidence of his innocence nor a credible assertion for postconviction relief; it expressed disappointment Thursday in the state high court's decision to stay Ryan's execution.
"We ... will review all of our options," said Shannon Kingery, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Attorney General's office. "Delaying the imposition of the death penalty only further delays justice for the victims' families."
Nebraska has not executed anyone since 1997, and it has yet to execute anyone by lethal injection. When Ryan was sentenced to death, 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 state Legislature changed Nebraska's method of execution to lethal injection in 2009.
At the time of the killing near Rulo, Ryan and about 20 cult members lived at the farm and stored weapons in preparation for a final battle between good and evil.
Ryan, known to cult members as the "King," ordered the murder of Thimm because Ryan believed he had displeased Yahweh, their god. 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.