Two families. Two victims. Two different views of Nebraska's death penalty.

Vivian Tuttle next to a photo of her daughter Evonne (upper left). Miriam Kelle and her brother James Thimm. (Photo Illustration: Bill Kelly, NET News)
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November 3, 2016 - 6:45am

Over the years the death penalty has divided the people with the most personal stake possible in the issue: family members of the murder victims.



THE BALLOT


NET's "Classroom Conversations: Nebraska's Death Penalty Vote" program and project explores many aspects of the issue. 

Having watched the crimes, the trials, and years of delays in the executions, they have reached very different conclusions about the merits of the death penalty.

During the public hearings held in October by the Nebraska secretary of state, family members touched by two different death penalty cases presented testimony.  


 

THE NORFOLK BANK MURDERS

In 2002 three men burst into a bank in Norfolk, Nebraska. In a matter of minutes they had fled with money, leaving four bank employees and a customer dead. All three killers were sentenced to death. To date, none have been executed.

The daughter and mother of the customer killed that day, Evonne Tuttle, remain strong advocates of maintaining the death penalty in Nebraska. Vivian Tuttle, Evonne's mother, testified at the hearings in Omaha and Lincoln. Christine Tuttle, Evonne's daughter, spoke in Kearney.

 

Vivian Tuttle

Vivian Tuttle shows a photo of her murdered daughter Evonne during the hearing in Omaha. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

The pain, the sorrow, never goes away. I went to every single trial. I sat through every one of them and I saw six different times my daughter get down on her knees, bow her head, put her hands behind her back, and (Jose) Sandoval shot her in the back of the head. I saw that six times, and that’s never going to go away. That’s always going to be with me.

Yes, I want these people to have the death penalty. The law of our land said it was such a heinous, terrible crime, that they should have the death penalty. You talk about the money? Let me tell you. My daughter’s blood that was spilled on that bank floor was worth more than any of the money that it took to do any of this.

Christine Tuttle

I don’t have any data. I don’t have any statistics. I don’t have any Bible verses. I just have my story. As far as the price of the death penalty goes, there are all different kinds of figures, but honestly, the price does not matter to me. How much would just one more hug with my mom cost, or how much would just one more Christmas or birthday cost? Some things you just can’t put a price on. Capital punishment is an investment worth taking. These ten men on death row have nothing to lose. I believe, if they had an opportunity to kill again, they would. The only way this can never happen is for them to be executed.

MICHAEL RYAN’S CULT MURDERS

The deaths of two people at the hand of Michael Ryan remain one of the most bizarre chapters in Nebraska criminal history. The names of the victims, 26-year old James Thimm and 6-year old Rickie Stice are, to the disappointment of their families, often overlooked.

Ryan lead a small doomsday cult on a farm outside of Rulo, Nebraska. After Thimm questioned the group's beliefs he was tortured to death on Ryan’s command. Ryan was sentenced to death. He died on death row of brain cancer 30 years after the murders took place.

Thimm’s sister, Miriam, has opposed the death penalty. She spoke at the hearing in Lincoln.

Miriam Thimm Kelle

Miriam Kelle prepares to testify at the hearing in Lincoln. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

In 1985, my brother James, Jim to us, was tortured to death, and his killer, Michael Ryan, was eventually sent to death row. I have seen, over and over, how Nebraska’s penalty is a false hope to victims. When they sentence someone to death, we sentence the family, too.

Michael Ryan was sentenced to death over thirty years ago; at that time, my son was in diapers. My son now has children of his own, and until last year, Michael Ryan sat on death row, and when he died of cancer, the justice of execution that was promised my family never came.

When we were assured by authorities, over and over again, that his sentence would soon be carried out, it breaks my heart to see how other families in our state are hanging on to this false promise of an execution.

I would give anything to go back in time, and change that death sentence to life imprisonment. If that happened, my children would have grown up without seeing their uncle’s killer become a celebrity, as he slowly worked his way through the court system.

For “Classroom Conversations: Nebraska’s Death Penalty Vote,” NET News brought advocates from each side of the issue to answer questions from students at Western Nebraska Community College in Scottsbluff,Northeast Community College in Norfolk and Metropolitan Community College in Omaha. These lively discussions are the foundation of a 30-minute television program and additional web content you can find on the project web site.

Some in my family waited in vain for these decades for Michael Ryan to be executed. Each year, their pain was compounded by the fact that the justice system failed to deliver the justice that they were promised. Had we been given a sentence of life without the possibility for parole, we would have left the legal system behind thirty years ago, and be able to focus our energy on our family, and our grief, and not the false promise of an execution. This is purgatory.

Some in my family wished Michael Ryan executed; others didn’t. We should have been united in remembering our loving memories of our brother, Jim, comforting one another. This punishment created a rift in our family. Sadly, our case is not unusual; Nebraska has not executed in almost twenty years, and we have one man who has been sitting on our death row since 1980.

 

 


To hear testimony of supporters of the death penalty, CLICK HERE.

To hear testimony of opponents of the death penalty, CLICK HERE.

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