Miriam Thimm Kelle carries a grim treasury to illustrate the lack of closure the death penalty brings for families of murder victims: a thick album of news stories about her brother, James, the victim in one of the most violent and disturbing murders in Nebraska’s history. She brought the book with her last year to the Nebraska State Capitol, where it sat by her side during a hearing in which she urged lawmakers to pass a bill abolishing capital punishment once and for all.
Kelle’s father had begun collecting the articles after James’s death in 1985, passing them on to his other children before he died. The first three pages of the album are about James’s funeral. The rest chronicle the long saga that ensued, the trial and subsequent appeals. The lurid details of James’s death appear again and again. “Each time I read through it,” Kelle told me, “it’s just more crazy and awful.”
The man who killed James, a white supremacist cult leader named Michael Ryan, was sentenced to die in 1986, but in 2015 remained alive on death row. As decades passed, Ryan enjoyed notoriety and attention, while Kelle’s family lived in a sort of “purgatory,” endlessly awaiting an execution date. As Kelle spoke before lawmakers that day, Ryan was dying of cancer. She had no need to see him executed. But she felt betrayed by what she called the “false promise” of the death penalty. “Michael Ryan was sentenced nearly 30 years ago,” Kelle testified. “At that time, my son was in diapers. Now my son has two children of his own. And Michael Ryan still sits on death row.” Kelle said she would “give anything” to go back in time and ask for a life sentence.
Kelle was one of several witnesses at the hearing who were feeling hopeful. The abolition bill, LB268, had been put forward by veteran state Sen. Ernie Chambers — an outspoken champion of social justice who introduced anti-death penalty legislation every year. But recently a coalition of conservatives had joined the fight, reframing the death penalty as a wasteful government program — expensive, ineffective, and contrary to Christian values. Leading the charge was Republican state Sen. Colby Coash, who described how as a college student he had once joined the bloodthirsty throngs outside Nebraska’s death chamber as an execution was carried out. Now he was a staunch fighter for abolition — and part of a growing trend that has seen transforming conservative attitudes about the death penalty.
In May 2015, two months after Kelle testified before lawmakers, the Nebraska legislature passed LB268, in a historic victory for abolitionists. In a 30-19 vote, lawmakers overrode a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts, making Nebraska the first red state to end the death penalty in 40 years.
Yet the battle over Nebraska’s death penalty was far from over. In November, voters will have an opportunity to overturn LB268, thanks largely to the efforts — and considerable family fortune — of Gov. Ricketts. Denouncing the law as proof that “the legislature has lost touch with the citizens of Nebraska,” Ricketts poured his own money into repealing it, funding a petition drive launched under the banner Nebraskans for the Death Penalty. Last summer, the group attracted enough signatures to put the issue on the November 2016 ballot; in September, the Lincoln Journal Star reported that the group had raised more than $913,000 — “a third of it from Gov. Pete Ricketts and his father, Joe Ricketts,” the founder of TD Ameritrade. Last month the Nebraska Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a lawsuit alleging that the governor improperly downplayed his role driving the referendum in order to mask the “violation of his duty” to enforce state laws, even those with which he disagrees.
With the court set to rule on the lawsuit soon, anti-death penalty activists have launched Retain a Just Nebraska, organizing events throughout the state to convince voters to reject the death penalty in November. Sen. Coash has taken a leading role in the campaign, making his case in speeches and in the press. But as was the case in winning abolition in Nebraska, preserving it will also rely on murder victims’ families who have worked behind the scenes for years. For people like Kelle, this means continuing to revisit a deep-seated trauma over and over again, as part of the exhausting work of changing hearts and minds.
Speaking over the phone after a recent work shift, Kelle was intent on describing the looming referendum as an opportunity to educate Nebraskans about why the death penalty is wrong. But her fatigue was also clear. “It took me ten years to work through the anger and all the emotional aspects” of James’s death, she told me. It took several more years to find the courage to tell her story. After 12 years fighting to end the death penalty, “I was hoping that we would be done. Because it’s very traumatic to go over it every time.”
The murder of James Thimm was shocking. Potential jurors for Michael Ryan’s 1986 trial were asked if they had “queasy stomachs.” One district judge who upheld the conviction called it “the most horrendous torture and sickening murder imaginable.” When she gives speeches, Kelle tries to let people know that “it’s a difficult story,” she said. “I use that as an option out.”
Thimm was raised by foster parents in Beatrice, Nebraska, where he was part of a devout Mennonite community. At some point in his late teens, he became attracted to the religious cult led by Ryan, eventually moving to the cult’s farm in Rulo, on the southeastern edge of the state. But Thimm began to question Ryan’s messianic claims; Ryan responded by declaring that Thimm was the devil and ordered him punished. Over three days, he was brutally tortured by Ryan and his followers. In August 1985, months later, Thimm’s body was discovered following a raid by law enforcement. He had broken bones and had been partially skinned. Buried next to him was the son of two cult members, 5-year-old Luke Stice, also killed by Ryan. At trial, cult members described how Thimm was “chained, whipped, shot in the fingers and forced to have sex with a goat.”
As Kelle’s family reeled from the trauma of her brother’s horrific murder, prosecutors pushed them to support the death penalty for Ryan. “We were told this was the only option” that would ensure he couldn’t hurt others, she said. “The state said he would be a danger to other people beyond James,” including prison guards. “And we didn’t want that.” Ryan was convicted and sentenced to die.
Kelle had never been comfortable with the death penalty. She was a nurse as well as a Mennonite and leaned more toward healing and forgiveness. Over time, she found herself reaching out to those who had participated in her brother’s murder. One of them had described himself as James’s “best friend,” yet admitted to torturing him, saying he’d been brainwashed. He was sentenced to 15 years. “I was really scared that he wouldn’t be better when he got out,” Kelle recalled. She feared he would remain in the grip of that same “false doctrine — we now call it radicalization.” She began visiting him in prison, trying to work with him to ensure that he would be ready for release, a decision she acknowledges is “difficult for people to understand.”
It was not until years later, after Kelle got a brief part-time job working at Nebraska’s Tecumseh Prison, that she was finally able to publicly disavow the death penalty. The prison was home to death row, where Ryan was incarcerated. She saw firsthand how bogus the state’s claim to her family had been — the prison’s security was more than enough to keep Ryan from harming employees. Kelle reached out to Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and eventually met other murder victims’ family members who were opposed to executions. “It was just so validating to know that they felt the same way,” she said.
Today Kelle criticizes the way politicians treat grieving families like political pawns, “putting you on a chessboard to their advantage.” If you agree with the state, they’ll support you at trial and beyond, she said. But if you stand up against executions, “all of a sudden, along comes the big King, or in our case, Governor Ricketts, [to defeat you]. And that’s really very disheartening when you work so hard and it costs so much emotionally to do this work.”
This dynamic was on display in April of last year during the floor debate over the abolition bill. Lawmakers opposed to the bill described Thimm’s murder in graphic detail, casting him as a “victim who is unable” to speak for himself. Kelle was not present, but her fellow activist Elle Hansen, who has lost three loved ones to murder, was at the Capitol that day. “I already have plenty of PTSD,” Hansen told me. As she listened to Republican Sen. David Schnoor describe how Thimm had been sodomized with a shovel, she realized, “I could not sit and listen to that again.” From that point on, Hansen brought earbuds to hearings and played the Sara Bareilles song “Brave” whenever testimony became too graphic.
For those who have lost loved ones to murder, such experiences are “horribly re-traumatizing,” Hansen explained. Politicians exploit other people’s tragedies when “they are not their losses to speak about, to dictate about.” As she listened to lawmakers argue that day, Hansen felt increasingly unsettled by a meeting she had recently attended with the governor that she could not shake from her mind.
On April 7, 2015 — less than two months before the abolition bill passed — Hansen, Kelle, and a handful of other activists sat down with Gov. Ricketts in Lincoln. It was a chance to make their case for abolition. As Hansen recalls, she was telling the governor that if the state reinvested the money it spends on the death penalty toward crime prevention, the murder rate would decline, “and your likelihood of sitting here as a person whose lost a loved one to murder would go down considerably.” The governor’s response surprised her. “I actually have lost a loved one to murder,” he told Hansen. Ricketts had never revealed this part of his family’s past. Hansen went home and researched the case. The victim had been Ricketts’s first cousin, 22-year-old Ronna Anne Bremer, who went missing right before Christmas in 1988. A pregnant mother of two, Bremer’s death was confirmed only after an anonymous person mailed her skull to a sheriff’s office. The crime was never solved.
Hansen could certainly empathize with the family’s plight, but she was disturbed by Ricketts’s lack of transparency. As a relative of murder victims, she said, “I stood up … and I said, ‘Look, I have skin in the fight.’” She didn’t see why the governor, as an elected official, should not be just as forthcoming. Afterward, Hansen watched as Ricketts personally funded the referendum to repeal the abolition law. “I thought for sure … he was going to say something,” Hansen said. But months later, petitions were being turned in, “and he still didn’t say anything.”
Hansen got angry. She had already been disgusted by Ricketts’s unethical approach to executions, the way he had tried to import lethal injection drugs from foreign countries in violation of federal law. Now he was deploying his wealth and power to roll back the law she and others had fought so hard to win through the democratic process.
In September, Hansen met with Joe Duggan, a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald. She told him about the meeting with Ricketts. She also shared her own story, talking in detail about the three loved ones she’d lost to murder. Afterward, Hansen said, “I went to the bathroom in the coffee shop and I just bawled.”
Later, Duggan broke the story about the meeting and Ricketts’s cousin. The governor refused to comment, but a spokesperson issued a statement. “The Ricketts family continues to grieve Ronna’s tragic death, and pray that the person who took her life will be brought to justice.”
It is impossible to know how deeply his cousin’s case has influenced Ricketts’s views on the death penalty. But the contrast of Ricketts’s personal war against abolition with the positions of Kelle and Hansen illustrates the different ways people react to a tragic loss. Twenty-nine murder victims’ families publicly expressed their support for the abolition bill last year — but there are surely 29 others who might disagree. Within Kelle’s own family, she said, there are those who would have liked to see Michael Ryan executed. But in the end they too experienced the disparity between how the death penalty works in theory and its cruel reality.
Michael Ryan died on May 24, 2015, after nearly 30 years on death row. Three days later, LB268 passed, abolishing the death penalty in Nebraska. As the fight over abolition drags on, proponents of capital punishment will have a harder time pointing to Ryan as proof that the death penalty works. For her part, Kelle will continue to carry her collection of articles and to urge the state to stop wasting money on a policy that punishes the very families the death penalty claims to heal. “Resources could be used for so many other things,” she said. “Victims’ rights, cold cases … I mean, just pick whatever you’d like. Anything but that.”