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Keadle found guilty of second-degree murder

BEATRICE — After deliberating for nearly nine hours, the jury returned Thursday afternoon finding Joshua Keadle guilty of second-degree murder here for the killing of a 19-year-old Peru State student who disappeared early Dec. 3, 2010.

Word spread at 2:30 p.m. that jurors had reached a decision in the 2½-week-long case, sending attorneys and spectators back to the third-floor courtroom at the Gage County Courthouse. 

Tyler Thomas' family, some wiping away tears, walked out of the room as the district court clerk polled each of the jurors on the decision.

Keadle sat wide-eyed at the defense table. 

Second-degree murder is an intentional killing without premeditation.

A day earlier, prosecutors argued that Keadle was guilty of first-degree murder -- a planned, intentional killing -- for taking Thomas, of Omaha, out to a boat ramp along the river early the morning she disappeared.

Her body never was found. 

Assistant Nebraska Attorney General Doug Warner said Keadle took her there intending to isolate and kill her, then dumped her in the river. He called the defense all "cover-up, lies and deceit.” 

On the other side, defense attorney Matt McDonald had told jurors that the state wanted them to wildly speculate about what happened despite a timeline that didn't fit.

Keadle maintained he left Thomas there -- alive -- when she refused to get back in his Ford Explorer because she was angry he wouldn't drive her to Omaha.

McDonald said it was more likely that Thomas fell in the river or jumped, given how drunk and out-of-control witnesses said she was that night. 

After the verdict, another of Keadle's attorneys, Jeff Pickens, said they were disappointed with the decision. 

Keadle had been nearing the end of a 15-20 year sentence on an unrelated sexual assault in Dodge County, but now will face 20 years to life in prison when Gage County District Judge Rick Schreiner sentences him April 29.

If the jury had found him guilty of first-degree murder, he would have gotten an automatic life sentence.

Calls to Thomas's parents Thursday afternoon went unanswered. 

But Vince Powers, who represented them in a wrongful death lawsuit that resulted in a symbolic $2.64 billion judgment against Keadle, called it a great result and said he was happy for the family. 

"They never quit. They wanted justice, and today they got it," he said.

Attorney General Doug Peterson thanked jurors for their diligent deliberations and the members of the Peru State College community and the public who searched for Thomas following her disappearance. He said he also appreciated law enforcement's “extraordinary effort in not giving up on this case and the excellent work done by the prosecution team."

"While we have never been able to bring Thomas' body home, we are hopeful that today’s verdict will bring her family some semblance of closure from their long years of uncertainty and suffering," Peterson said. 

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Cindy Lange-Kubick: Black Love, Black Futures and the powerful art of Kat Wiese

Kat Wiese is standing on a chair inside the South of Downtown Art Hub, taking down old art so she can hang new art.

The new art will star in a show opening on Valentine’s Day. It’s called "Black Love, Black Futures," and Wiese is one of its featured artists.

The 24-year-old wrote about "Black Love, Black Futures" on her Facebook page.

She wrote about a painting she’s been laboring over for months and about the artists and chefs and musicians joining her to show off their talents.

She wrote: “I am proud to say this was organized and presented from start to finish, from music to food, by black folks!”

Wiese is a printmaker and a painter and a photographer.

She’s friendly, welcoming, thoughtful, a supporter of the people and the neighborhood where she works and lives.

“Kat is such a wonderful person,” Lindsey Weber Riskowski says. “She cares so much about connecting people with other people.”

Weber Riskowski is a printmaker who moved to Lincoln and discovered a kindred spirit in Wiese.

She was impressed by the younger woman’s drive, her knowledge, her talent, the depth of her work.

She saw her focus and determination.

“She’s concentrating her energy to work to help build an art history that hasn’t been readily available to black people.”

Wiese is biracial. Her mom is black and her father is white. Her own skin is light and, growing up, she wasn’t sure how people saw her. A girl with freckles who liked Southern rock and Aretha Franklin and skateboarding.

A girl who blended in with the majority white community she grew up in.

“I didn’t know I was visibly black.”

But when she was a freshman in college — on her way to a 2018 degree in fine art from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln — she went to Richmond, Virginia, as a member of UNL’s Slam Poetry team and found herself at a discussion in a space open exclusively to black people.

That meant her.

“It was the first time that I had been in such an intimate environment where people were talking about their experiences and their families. What it meant to be light-skinned, what it meant to be dark-skinned.”

They talked about things she had not yet considered.

“For the first time, I realized I had a community and it was big and beautiful and diverse.”

Lincoln sculptor Nathan Murray is part of that community. He met Wiese at an opening of his work at the Lux Art Center.

“Her art is meant to make the viewer think,” he says. “She explores issues about race that touch on larger issues that are going on in society.”

And he’s watched the way she incorporates her passions at her day job at the South of Downtown Community Development Organization on 11th Street, connecting with people of different races and backgrounds.

”Bringing people together, uplifting them,” he says. “That’s super important in this day and age.”

Her positivity is contagious, says her South of Downtown boss, Shawn Ryba.

“An unrelenting focus on the strengths of those living in the neighborhood.”

Wiese grew up in Lincoln; she attended Lincoln High and North Star and the Arts and Humanities School.

Her mom was her role model, she says.

“My mom is one of the most important people in my life.”

Wiese tells a story. She was in the car with her mom and she watched her stop to offer a ride to a man who was struggling to walk.

“That’s the kind of generous person she is.”

Another story. Her parents were divorcing and she and her mom were staying in a friend’s basement — her mom sleeping in a cramped room with a bunk bed, giving her daughter a larger room with space to work on her art.

“I strive to be like that,” she says. “To really invest in the people I care about.”

Wiese is married. She and her husband, Scott Wiese, live close to her South of Downtown workplace.

She teaches Sunday School at the F Street Neighborhood Church. She makes earrings and creates commissioned murals. She’s obsessed with cooking Indian food and with politics and, most of all, art.

She’s spending Black History Month sending out tributes to local black artists.

In her day job, she connects with neighbors and students at nearby schools. She organizes art shows and art classes and makers markets — displaying and selling the work of local creatives.

This spring, she is organizing “yarn storming” classes for the neighborhood and, when they are finished creating, they will decorate light poles and alleys with the textile art.

“She brings things into the lives of people who live in that area that they don’t have access to,” says Peggy Gomez, who serves on a committee Wiese leads. “That work is important.”

And then there is Wiese’s own work as an artist, a passion since her childhood.

“I’ve always wanted to be an artist, but in college I really kind of found my path, art as a way to process my identity and my ideas.”

One of the paintings she will unveil at the show Friday is a 6½-by-7-foot wood panel, a painting within a painting. A light-skinned black woman sitting on a stool, staring out, a portrait of her own face — darker in color — behind her on an easel.

Its title: “If a Black Woman is Afraid of the Dark, is She Afraid of a Shadow or Herself?”

The backdrop of the painting is made up of brown paper bags that Wiese collected from grocery stores and carefully cut and glued to the wood panel — a nod to the “brown paper bag test” used in the early 20th century at black colleges and other black organizations to deny admission to anyone whose skin was darker than the bag.

Her mom had told her about the test when she was younger, Wiese says.

And she learned more in college, researching for a short documentary on mulitracial identities.

“It made me think differently about some of my early experiences with other black girls and the underlying sense of distrust there.”

She began to grapple with colorism — the privilege of lighter skin — and its continuing presence in the world and making it a focus of her work.

To illustrate it in her painting, Wiese searched for black female faces from pages of women’s fashion magazines from the mid-’90s forward.

She flipped through thousands of glossy pages to find enough faces of color — darker than a paper bag — to put in her montage.

“Those were the magazines I saw growing up. The faces I saw and the faces I didn’t see because they weren’t considered valuable enough to put in a magazine.”

Black faces erased.

“That’s my mother being made invisible. That’s my sisters being made invisible.”

Wiese used every shade of black paint she could find — carbon black, blue black, mars black, chromatic black — to create the image of the woman in her painting.

“Blackness is completely nuanced, where we often think of it as a void,” the artist says. “But black identity is so full and so rich.”

She wants to help celebrate that, she says.

And her art is one way of achieving that vision.

“I really believe art has the ability to start conversations that wouldn’t happen otherwise,” she says. “And I really want to use the capacity of art as an investment in cultural identity to connect the community.”

editor's pick alert
Sentencing reform said to be one of most important issues to face Nebraska Legislature this session

Senators began debate Thursday on a prison sentencing bill that at least two senators said could be as consequential as any property tax or business tax incentives bill because of the big money that could be required as prison overcrowding continues.

The bill (LB131), introduced by Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, is about sentencing reform that would, as amended, require that a minimum sentence be no more than half the years as the maximum number of years. For example, if the maximum sentence is 20 years, the minimum could be no more than 10 years. 

This would be required for certain class felonies, unless a mandatory minimum sentence is required by law.

The change would have the practical effect of allowing offenders to become parole-eligible sooner, while alleviating the overcrowding crisis in Nebraska prisons, Pansing Brooks said. But just because an inmate would be parole eligible doesn't mean he or she would be granted parole. 

Judiciary Committee Chairman Steve Lathrop said in the state's overcrowded prisons, with a looming declaration of emergency population conditions July 1 and room for about only 150 more inmates, there are 900 people who have gone beyond their parole eligibility date and are still sitting in the state's overcrowded prisons.

Those 900 prisoners have not been paroled for a variety of reasons, including not getting the proper programming needed for release.

The prison population has grown by 200 over the past year, Lathrop said.

Prison population projections show that by the end of 2030 the prisons could hold more than 7,300 inmates. That would mean the department would have to build 200 beds a year just to be at 140% design capacity, he said. 

Senators must decide if the state wants to try to build its way out of the crisis or address it with sentencing reform, Lathrop said. 

"This bill is a consequential bill because we can't build our way out of this," Lathrop said.

If the state has to spend that kind of money on brick and mortar, and workers and operations, it can forget about property tax relief, business tax incentives and properly funding the schools, he said.

Sen. Julie Slama of Peru opposed the bill, noting the felonies that would be affected are manslaughter, aggravated assault, burglary and sexual assault of a child.

The debate centers around a serious concept, she said, that involves sentencing a person guilty of a heinous crime to 10 to 20 years -- instead of 19 to 20 years, and thus allowing parole eligibility in a shorter time.

Similar bills have been introduced in previous years and have always been opposed by the Attorney General's office and prosecutors, who say the discretion by judges to determine a sentence on a case-by-case basis that addresses the specific facts of a case, as well as the needs and concerns associated with a particular offender, is of utmost importance.

The attorneys believe it could pose a significant and unnecessary risk to public safety, and have no verifiable impact on crowding of prisons.

Appropriations Chairman John Stinner spoke in support of the bill. 

"I think we have a lot of other priorities than to build prisons," he said.

Do the math, he said. It would be $400 million to $500 million the state would have to spend, not including the operating costs. 

"This Legislature needs to get a grip," he said. 

The Legislature is expected to continue debate on the bill Tuesday.