The Nebraska judge who sentenced Michael Ryan to die in the electric chair made a stupid mistake when he met improperly with members of the victims' families.
It was the kind of mistake that could easily result in a killer getting a new trial, or a new sentencing procedure.
In Ryan's case, however, three federal judges said Friday that the error by the trial judge could be overlooked.
Because of the graphic, gruesome evidence presented at Ryan's trial, which detailed ongoing torture and sexual abuse. Nhat nothing said to the judge by family members could be more powerful than such evidence, the federal panel said.
The decision from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was the latest in a series of efforts by Ryan to avoid the electric chair.
Ryan was the leader of a survivalist cult that lived on a farm near Rulo in Richardson County. He sentenced to die for the 1985 torture slaying of James Thimm. Thimm was one of Ryan's followers. Ryan also was found guilty of second-degree murder in the death of 5-year-old Luke Stice, the son of a cult member.
Evidence showed that Thimm was sexually abused, whipped, shot, stomped upon and partially skinned while still alive. One of his legs was broken. The fingertips were shot off one of his hands.
At one point during Thimm's ordeal, according to trial testimony, Ryan told other followers that God wanted Thimm to suffer for several days.
District Judge Robert Finn met improperly, at different times, with members of both victims' families.
Nebraska courts and the federal courts concluded that such meetings were unarguably improper.
However, the three-judge federal panel noted the U.S. Supreme Court allows substantial leeway in evaluating such circumstances and determining whether they were prejudicial to a defendant.
In Ryan's case, the federal judges said, prejudice wasn't a problem.
"There is sufficient evidence in the record to support the Nebraska state courts' conclusion that any possible prejudicial effect of the ex parte meetings on Judge Finn's sentencing was minimal given the nature of the evidence presented at trial. As the district court explained, "Judge Finn was not presented with any material information about issues pertinent to Ryan's death sentence during the Thimm or Stice family meetings that had not already been presented to Judge Finn in earlier court proceedings."
The federal court added: "This case involves horrific instances of torture and murder. It was not unreasonable for the Nebraska state courts to conclude that there was little the victims' families could say that would have had a prejudicial effect on Judge Finn given the evidence and testimony he had already heard. The Nebraska Supreme Court reasonably concluded that Judge Finn could not have been presented with any evidence at the May 9, 1986 meeting that had not already been presented to him, and that he made his sentencing decision based upon the documentary evidence and the record before the trial court."
Ryan also argued that the ex parte communications showed that Finn had an improper bias against him, and that this bias deprived him of a fair sentencing.
"The Nebraska state courts reasonably concluded that any possible appearance of impartiality" was minimal, the judges said.
"In this instance, the state courts could reasonably find that any disdain Judge Finn possessed for Ryan was motivated by evidence and testimony presented at trial. It is unlikely that any statements by the families could have altered Judge Finn's sentencing," the Appeals Court concluded.
The latest decision also rejected Ryan's argument that he was incompetent to stand trial.
Thimm's death also led to life sentences for Ryan's son, Dennis, and Tim Haverkamp. Both were convicted of second-degree murder. Dennis Ryan, 15 when the crimes occurred, was released from prison in 1997 after the courts granted him a new trial that led to his conviction for manslaughter. Haverkamp is still in prison.