Death row inmate loses appeal before magistrate

Lincoln Journal Star/December 17, 2002
By Butch Mabin

A federal magistrate has ruled Michael W. Ryan, who is on Nebraska's death row for a gruesome torture murder, was mentally competent to stand trial and make appeals in the case.

U.S. Magistrate Judge David L. Piester also ruled the former religious cult leader's right to a fair trial was not compromised when the trial judge turned his back on Ryan during his testimony. Mike Nelsen of Omaha, one of Ryan's attorneys, said in an interview Monday he would ask U.S. District Judge Richard G. Kopf to review Piester's 93-page report.

"We respectfully disagree with about every one of his conclusions," Nelsen said.

"The (trial) judge's turning his back on him in the case poisoned the procedure. It sent a signal to the jury that he despised and detested the defendant, which he did."

Ryan has been on death row since 1986 for the torture death of James Thimm on a farm near Rulo.

Thimm, a follower in a religious cult headed by Ryan, had fallen out of Ryan's favor. Ryan tortured him for several days before stomping him to death.

Attorneys for Ryan argue in the latest petition that he is not competent to appeal his case.

They also argue that his waiver of the mental health issue in his earlier appeals should be tossed out since he lacked the competence to make the waiver.

In his order Friday, Piester concluded the competency waiver in the earlier appeals was moot because evidence supported a finding that Ryan was competent to stand trial.

Piester noted the psychologist and psychiatrist who testified at the federal hearing that Ryan was incompetent also were his expert witnesses at the original trial.

Neither of them advised the trial judge or defense counsel at the time that Ryan was incompetent, Piester said.

"This fact significantly undermines their credibility," he wrote.

The judge also said a psychiatrist at the Federal Medical Center in Springfield, Mo., testified she saw no signs of mental illness in Ryan during the 64 days he was a patient there.

In addition, Piester said there was no evidence that Ryan's right to a fair trial was jeopardized when Richardson County District Judge Robert T. Finn turned his back on Ryan as he testified.

"Although Judge Finn's conduct in turning his back to Ryan during Ryan's testimony was improper, the evidence does not support finding Ryan was thereby unconstitutionally denied a fair trial," Piester wrote.

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