Two Nebraska prison inmates who won the right to marry in 2019 never will, and the potential precedent that their case could have established has disappeared following one of their deaths earlier this year.
Paul Gillpatrick and Niccole Wetherell sued the state in 2014 after the wardens at their prisons and the director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services denied their request to marry, calling it a security risk to transport them to a ceremony.
Attorneys for the couple asked that it be conducted by Skype or some other video teleconferencing. But the prison said no, interpreting state law to require a couple to be physically in the presence of a magistrate or minister and witnesses.
In 2019, U.S. District Judge Robert Rossiter concluded the corrections officials' denial of a virtual ceremony was "unreasonable," as officials could not identify any material costs or threats to their facilities that might result from the ceremony.
The case also tackled a 2016 Department of Corrections policy that forbade inmate marriages unless special circumstances created an exception. The judge ruled the policy invalid, citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Turner v. Safley, which involved a nearly identical regulation at a Missouri prison.
But the state's appeal put the decision on hold.
And on Feb. 26, Wetherell, 40, died at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York of an undisclosed medical condition, according to a prison news release.
On Wednesday, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the matter moot because of her death and vacated the district court judgment.
The next day, Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska, said the decision followed seven years of litigation with positive developments in both state and federal court in the case it filed challenging the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services for denying its clients the fundamental right to marry.
"With the recent death of one of our clients, we are reminded that justice delayed is justice denied. Ms. Wetherell’s friends and family have our sincere condolences," she said.
Conrad said they are conferring with Gillpatrick and the legal team about potential next steps.
"The bottom line is this: Our clients were simply asking for the ability to marry. Marriage is a fundamental right, including for Nebraskans who are incarcerated,” she said.
According to court records, the couple had met through a mutual friend before they were in prison.
Wetherell was serving a life sentence for the 1998 stabbing death of Scott Catenacci in Bellevue.
Gillpatrick, now 49 and at the State Penitentiary in Lincoln, is serving a 55- to 90-year sentence for the 2009 killing of Robby Robinson, a former Omaha firefighter.