LINCOLN — The ACLU of Nebraska claims that the state is preventing two jailbirds from becoming married lovebirds.
On Tuesday, the civil rights organization filed a lawsuit against state prison officials contending that they have failed to accommodate the constitutional right to marry of two Nebraska prison inmates, Paul Gillpatrick and Niccole Wetherell.
The inmates — who are both serving time for homicide — have offered to pay the costs of transporting them to the same prison for a wedding ceremony, or to finance alternative arrangements, such as using an Internet video link to get married, according to the ACLU.
But the state turned them down, citing “legal and security” reasons.
One of the attorneys for the inmates maintains that the state has the flexibility to allow the wedding but won't.
“We are not demanding that it change its security requirements,” Omaha attorney Michael Gooch said in a press release. “All we are asking is that the state accommodate this couple's legal desire to marry.”
Wetherell is serving a life sentence; Gillpatrick won't be eligible for parole for 25 years.
The lawsuit was filed in Lancaster County District Court and names the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, State Corrections Director Michael Kenney and the wardens of the prisons in Lincoln and York, respectively, that house Gillpatrick and Wetherell.
Corrections spokeswoman Dawn-Renee Smith said Tuesday that she could not comment on pending litigation but pointed out that the department's top priority is public safety.
When asked about exchanging vows via the Internet, Smith cited state law, which requires that a bride and groom marry “in the presence” of a minister or court magistrate.
This isn't the first time the engagement of a pair of Nebraska prison inmates has prompted a legal quandary.
In 2010, the Douglas County Clerk's Office rejected the marriage license application of another pair of male and female state prison inmates, housed at Tecumseh and York, who had been married over the phone by an Omaha minister.
A legal opinion from the Douglas County Attorney's Office stated that not only was the bride's signature not notarized, but that a strict reading of state law requires that the bride and groom be “physically present” before a magistrate or minister. So the marriage license of inmates Sean Johnston and Jenine McCormick was rejected.
The opinion, however, added that no previous legal cases in Nebraska, or any prior state attorney general opinions, could be found on the meaning of “in the presence.”
Prison weddings are not common — perhaps two to three a year happen in Nebraska, according to Smith — but they typically involve an inmate and a non-inmate.
In the case of Gillpatrick and Wetherell, the two met through a mutual friend before entering prison. But they have carried on a romance via letters while incarcerated and have been engaged for two years, according to ACLU spokesman Tyler Richard.
Gillpatrick, in a letter to the ACLU, said he has known Wetherell since 1998.
“She makes me laugh, she brings smiles to my face every day, and I want to marry her,” he wrote.
Nebraska prison system rules state that space and time will be arranged for in-prison marriage ceremonies. But the policy bars the transportation of inmates from one institution to another for such events.
The only exception is if one of the inmates is housed at a community corrections center, a low-security, work-release facility that is a transitional stop before an inmate is released.
Such exceptions are allowed only with the approval of prison wardens.
Neither Wetherell nor Gillpatrick is in community corrections.
Wetherell, 33, is incarcerated at the state's prison for women in York. She was among three people sentenced to life in prison for their roles in the fatal stabbing of 19-year-old Scott Catenacci at Bellevue's Haworth Park. Catenacci was stabbed at least 57 times in the 1998 group slaying. Wetherell will never be eligible for parole, unless the State Pardons Board decides to alter her sentence.
Gillpatrick, 42, was sentenced to 55 years to 90 years in prison for second-degree murder and use of a firearm to commit a felony. He was convicted, along with a sister, in the 2009 slaying of a former Omaha firefighter, Robby Robinson.
The ACLU argues that state officials cannot deny the couple their right to marry simply because they are incarcerated and held in separate institutions.
The lawsuit doesn't spell out a specific alternative to transporting the bride and groom to the same prison, but Richard, the ACLU spokesman, mentioned that Skype, which allows video conversations via the Internet, might be a possibility.
But he said it will be up to a judge to decide if there is a suitable alternative.
A few states, including Colorado, permit “proxy marriages” over the phone or Internet when both parties cannot be present in the same place. In those cases, a stand-in or “proxy” represents one of the parties at one of the sites. The State of Montana even allows double-proxy marriages, where both the bride and groom can be outside the state.
But such proxy weddings are mostly allowed for those on military deployments, not those serving prison sentences.
While proxy weddings may not be legal in Nebraska, at least one has been allowed.
A World-Herald story in 1988 told of the proxy wedding 40 years earlier of Helen Travnicek, who walked down the aisle at Omaha's Assumption Catholic Church, and William J. Smisek, who was stationed in Japan at the time.
Smisek's father stood in for his son at the 1948 wedding ceremony in Omaha.
But officials with both the Douglas and Lancaster County Clerk's Offices said Tuesday that such proxy marriages are not allowed in the state now.