Teenaged killer from 30-year old York County murder case seeks reduced sentence

Sydney Thieszen enters the courtroom for a hearing. (Photo by York News-Times)
March 24, 2017 - 6:45am

Sydney Thieszen wants the state of Nebraska to believe he has changed.


He made the case recently in York County District Court. Thieszen never said a word. Instead his attorney made the case through questioning of two mental health experts and a current corrections officer.

Thieszen listens to testimony in York District Court. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Thirty years ago, when Thieszen was 14 years old, he murdered his younger sister Sacha in the family’s farm house in Henderson, Nebraska. In 1988, he was sent to prison for the rest of his life. There was no chance for parole.

With a change in the law, Thieszen must be given the opportunity to request parole. While his attorney makes the case for leniency, some in York, including surviving members of the family, would like to see him punished for as long as the system will allow.

The opportunity arrived five years ago when the United States Supreme Court ruled on Miller v. Alabama. The court ruled it was unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to a lifetime in prison.

Soon, 26 Nebraska inmates, all charged with murder, returned to court asking judges in counties all over the state for new sentences. Most of those the mandatory resentencing hearings have now taken place.

Only three men were handed the maximum: a full life sentence, this time with the possibility of parole. Most will have to wait 20 to 30 years before getting the opportunity to make a case for freedom.

In two cases judges decided the teenagers, with decades already spent behind bars, could be released on parole. Another, suffering from mental illness, was not competent to understand the resentencing process and remains institutionalized.

Two others will only have to wait a matter of weeks before finding out how long they will remain in jail.

Late in April Sydney Thieszen will hear how much longer he must remain behind bars when District Court Judge James Steckler issues the revised sentence.

In March the court convened a mitigation hearing to take testimony that makes the case for or against a lighter sentence. The proceedings for Thieszen were like the others held around the state. Mental health experts reviewed the details of the crime, the reports of progress or set-backs made while in prison, and new interviews to assess the mental health of the inmate.

The approach taken by defense attorney Jeff Pickens highlighted three broad themes.

  • Since Thieszen was charged with the murder, research has indicated the adolescent brain lacks much of the impulse control and reasoning skills that generally are found in the adult mind.
  • Since jailed in 1988 Thieszen's record shows steady improvement in his life skills.
  • Those who have examined Thieszen believe he would not be a risk if allowed to leave prison.

On the first point, it was the research science which convinced the U.S. Supreme Court the teenaged brain cannot be assessed the same as an adult’s. In previous cases the court noted “developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds”—for example, in “parts of the brain involved in behavior control.”

Psychologist Kirk Newring of Omaha, testifying for the defense, told the court that was certainly the case for Sydney Thieszen.

“Emotionally aroused 14-year-olds are different than cold logic 14-year-olds and 14-year-olds are much different than 17 and 18-year-olds who are different from 40-year-olds,” Newring said on the witness stand.

 

Psychiatrist Kayla Pope testifies


Psychologist Kirk Newring testifies 

(Photos by York News-Times)

Child psychologist Kayla Pope of the Boys Town Institute told the court teenagers are often “impulsive without consideration of the consequences.”

Both the mental health experts felt Thieszen's mental health was challenged by a history of a mother with a drug addiction who emotionally and physically abused her son before he was sent to foster care. The Thieszen family adopted the boy. After doing well, those around the boy at the time reported increasingly troubling behavior.

Attorney Corey O’Brien of the Nebraska Attorney General’s office challenged portions of the psychiatrist’s testimony, noting there was little evidence at the time Thieszen had shown any remorse for the murder.

Both Newring and Pope said Thieszen had expressed his sorrow for his sister’s death in their recent interviews.

“I think you need to take this in context,” Pope testified, while considering at the time “he was emotionally overwhelmed” with there being “so much conflict in the home environment.”

“I think he didn't really know how to feel, to be honest,” Pope added.

To make the point his client has shown steady improvement in his behavior in prison, Pickens called to the stand a corrections officer familiar with Thieszen. Jeff Koch worked at the Tecumseh Correctional Center on two different occasions, separated by ten years.

Koch said he “never had a problem” with Thieszen and he “doesn't cause any trouble.” Asked by Pickens if the prisoner was respectful to corrections officers and other inmates, Koch replied simply, “Yep.”

Koch said he and other guards would watch in the commons area as Thieszen and other inmates spent hours on end crocheting blankets. Asked if they seemed of good quality, the guard shook his head and said enthusiastically “they look good!”

Theiszen had his problems while imprisoned. Over the years, he’d been caught with marijuana and was discovered to have had sexual relations with a female guard. While Department of Corrections reports introduced into evidence list over 200 violations of prison rules, most were considered minor.  None were violent.

While applying for parole could be years away, the judge will also consider if Thieszen could adapt to living outside of prison.

Both experts saw no indication Thieszen shows signs of psychotic or anti-social behavior.

Risk assessment testing done by Newring show Thieszen had a slightly greater risk for violence than the average person, but on the scale compared to others in prison, he scored substantially lower as a risk.

“There aren't any current clinical risk factors that suggest he's at higher risk of violence,” Newring told the judge.

Pope testified this would be a significant issue for someone who for decades never entertained the hope of living in regular society.

“My greatest concern would be for his own mental health,” Pope said. She said there can be many causes for stress living in the community “so I would be concerned about depression, anxiety, and that, perhaps, contributing to substance abuse.”

She added she was not saying he would be unable to cope, but there would need to be transition counseling and assurances Thieszen had a good support network if he gains his freedom.

A different picture of Thieszen is likely to be aired during the hearing for resentencing scheduled for April 21. Surviving members of the family, still pained by the death of Sacha Thieszen, will likely take the stand to argue for the longest sentence now allowed under the law.  

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