Nebraska Senior District Court Judge Richard Kopf is a crafty old man. He knows how to play an audience, and does so with finesse when he writes of a death* he can “cheerfully” support.
For me, Ryan’s death is a pleasant surprise. I know that sounds bad, but it is manifestly the truth.
It’s not an arbitrary bomb tossed into the blawgosphere to goad those of us who are steadfastly against the death penalty. Judge Kopf backs it up.
Consider what I wrote when denying his habeas corpus case:
This is a death penalty habeas corpus case. It involves the most horrendous torture and sickening murder imaginable. There is not the slightest doubt about the petitioner’s guilt. If any man deserves to be put to death, that man is Michael Ryan.
Michael Ryan (Ryan or the petitioner) was sentenced to death for torturing and then killing James Thimm. Ostensibly in the name of his God, and over a period of two days, Ryan and others at his direction tied and chained Thimm in a hog confinement shed; on several occasions sodomized Thimm with a shovel handle or a pick handle to the point that the man’s guts ruptured; whipped and beat Thimm; shot off some of the victim’s finger tips; partially skinned Thimm alive; and caused the man’s bones to be broken, once using a piece of lumber and a block of wood to complete the fracture of a leg with one blow. After that, Ryan stomped Thimm to death. Although a five-year-old child, Luke Stice, was also killed a month or so earlier as the events culminating in Thimm’s death boiled up, Ryan did not receive the death penalty for that crime [but was sentenced to life in prison].
Ryan v. Clarke, 281 F. Supp.2d 1008 (D. Neb. 2003).
I defy anyone reading that description of Ryan’s conduct not to harbor a visceral feeling of anger and disgust strong enough to want to push the plunger themselves. I told you he was a crafty old man.
At bottom line, it’s necessary to accept one reality. There are people who are sick enough, dangerous enough, disgusting enough, horrible enough, that it’s hard to justify why they should be allowed to waste another breath of oxygen that might be used by someone else. Such people exist. Sure, if one searches hard enough, one might find some redeeming value in their early childhood, but what sort of diseased human being could do such things to another human being?
That’s the trick. Hold out the absolutely worst among us, and then pose the question: why is capital punishment of this man wrong?
The obvious retort is to point at Cameron Todd Willingham, and ask the same question back. The point is that this time, at least if we take as true the finding, there is no doubt whatsoever that Ryan is as evil as portrayed, that if the hammer is to fall on anyone’s head, let it be Ryan. We may not trust the hammer very much, but Ryan is the one who needs to be nailed.
Yet, while we may not cry too hard for the soul of someone like Michael Ryan, the horror of what he did offers little insight as to how a young boy, much like any other young boy, ended up so twisted that he would do such things.
Ryan was a white supremacist. He and his group of followers had loose ties to the Posse Comitatus and links to the Christian Identity movement. His teachings included the supremacy of the white race, the inherent evil of Jews, and a distrust of all established earthly authority, including governments.
Was it something Ryan was taught by a fiery preacher? Was it an angry father, filled with hatred for his own failures, that taught this young boy to dehumanize the targets of his anger to the point where he could engage in such vile conduct?
In school, was he taught from books that ignored basic science because those who decided curriculum thought it more important that they impart religious fervor than knowledge? Did his teachers find him unworthy of the effort to break through the wall of anger and show him a path to a future of success?
Was Michael Ryan suffering from such serious psychopathy, unrecognized and untreated before he first pulled the wings off a fly? Did he go to jail, to prison, where no one bothered to figure out what sort of misfired sparks were happening in his head, and instead spent their time fueling his insanity, stoking the fire of crazy, so that when he came out there would be no doubt he would explode?
Michael Ryan didn’t arrive on this earth fully grown and so filled with hatred that his diseased mind found it acceptable, maybe compelling, to engage in such horrific conduct. If we only speak of the horrors he committed, we can well understand why Judge Kopf found the news of his death cheerful.
If only a little more attention was paid to him before the hammer fell, before he became the nail about whom no one will shed a tear.
* Michael Ryan cheated the executioner by dying on his own. But the fact that nature took him before the executioner did does not change the question posed by his death.