U.S. District Judge Richard G. Kopf, in a 53-page order Thursday, said Ryan received a fair trial and sentence for the 1985 torture-murder of James Thimm at a religious cult compound outside Rulo.
“There is not the slightest doubt about the petitioner’s guilt,” Kopf wrote.
Over a two-day period, Ryan, the cult’s leader, and some of his followers sodomized Thimm with a shovel or pick handle so that his guts ruptured, whipped and beat him, shot off some of his fingertips, partially skinned him alive and fractured one of his legs.
Afterward, Ryan stomped the man to death.
Ryan also murdered Luke Stice, the 5-year-old son of a cult member, roughly one month before Thimm’s death. He received a life sentence for the boy’s death.
Kopf said the case “involves the most horrendous torture and sickening murder imaginable. … If any man deserves to be put to death, that man is Michael Ryan.”
J. Kirk Brown, who represented the Nebraska attorney general’s office in the case, said he was pleased by the decision. The decision essentially affirmed earlier judgments against Ryan in state courts.
“We’re pleased that he denied relief,” Brown said. “We will continue to defend the judgment and sentence of the state courts.”
The attorney general’s office could ask the Nebraska Supreme Court to set an execution date for Ryan, but Brown said such a request was unlikely because of Ryan’s anticipated appeal of Kopf’s ruling to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Omaha attorney Steve Achelpohl, one of the lawyers representing Ryan, said Friday the legal team would appeal the ruling to the circuit court within 30 days.
“Obviously, we have great respect for Judge Kopf,” he said. “But we’re obviously going to do everything we can to save Michael Ryan’s life.”
Ryan raised a number of claims in the federal lawsuit, filed in 1999. Among them was a contention that the trial judge violated Ryan’s right to a fair trial by turning his back on the defendant during much of his testimony. In addition, Ryan claimed the judge had an improper meeting with the Stice family before imposing the death sentence.
The same claims were raised by Ryan, unsuccessfully, before the state Supreme Court.
Kopf said he could not conclude the state court was wrong in its findings. Anyway, he wrote, he would be required to deny the claims under a 1996 federal law that strengthened the deference federal courts give to state courts in criminal appeals.
The judge also said Ryan’s trial judge reached Ryan’s sentencing decision fairly.
“That careful decision evidences not the slightest hint of improper bias,” Kopf wrote.
Near the end of the order, Kopf noted that Ryan humiliated, tortured and then stomped to death Thimm in the name of God. The judge then cited an Old Testament verse:”And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”