In 1987, Sydney Thieszen committed a horrific crime as a 14-year-old.
Nebraska's highest court said Friday it supported his resentencing last year from life without parole to a minimum of 70 years in prison. It provides him with a "meaningful and realistic opportunity to obtain release," the judges said.
Thieszen was in his early teens in 1987 when he shot and killed his 12-year-old adopted sister Sacha in their home near Henderson. He first hit her with a wooden rod, and when she ran to the bathroom because of the bleeding, he followed and shot her in the back of the head. He put her in the bathtub, shot her twice more, then took off for Kansas in the family van. He was apprehended there days later.
He was charged with first-degree murder and use of a firearm to commit a felony. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and the firearm charge, and was sentenced as an adult to life in prison, with the possibility of parole in 1999.
Thieszen spent a year isolated in the York County jail after his conviction. He then went to an isolated room at the state Diagnostic and Evaluation Center in Lincoln when he was 15. A year later, he was released to the general population of adult inmates.
In 1996, he was granted another chance for a trial. But this time the state charged Thieszen with first-degree murder and use of a firearm, which ended in a conviction and a sentence of life without parole.
In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole sentences were unconstitutional for juvenile offenders.
The Nebraska Legislature passed a law that allowed juveniles convicted of first-degree murder to be sentenced to a minimum 40 years to life, with eligibility for parole after 20 years. It also allowed judges to continue to use discretion on life sentences for young people, saying they could sentence a youth to more than the minimum.
The bill grew out of the state's need to act on the federal court ruling that the courts would have to consider mitigating factors in sentencing, such as age, maturity and home environment, including previous abuse of the juvenile.
The district court vacated Thieszen's life sentence and set a hearing for a new sentencing.
At Thieszen's mitigation hearing last year, the district court heard evidence he had been severely abused by his biological mother until the age of 4, when he was placed in several foster homes. When he was 9, he was adopted by Edwin and Joyce Thieszen, people with strong religious beliefs who had three biological children and two other adopted children.
"Although Edwin and Joyce offered a stable and structured environment, it may not have been a nurturing one," the court said.
According to testimony, when he was 13, Thieszen was diagnosed with a conduct disorder, and just after he turned 14, the family learned he had been sexually molesting one of the family's foster children. His relationships at home and school had deteriorated, and he reportedly talked of killing his adoptive mother and other family members.
Psychiatrists testified that adolescent brains are characterized by novelty-seeking, risk-taking, poor judgment and increased submission to peer pressure. They think in the moment and lack the ability to see long-term consequences. Early trauma and high levels of stress impact brain development, and corporal punishment, like that said to be used by his adoptive parents, could make a previously abused child more reactive.
The psychiatrists said a mental health evaluation of Thieszen showed no signs of mental illness or antisocial behavior in prison, and that he was at low risk for future acts of violence. From the age of 18, he'd had no sex-related misconduct reports or charges. Thieszen did report during the evaluation he'd had physical intimacies with female staff members while he was incarcerated.
A corrections officer testified Thieszen did not cause trouble and was respectful to officers and inmates.
He expressed remorse, regret and sorrow for his crime.
In 2007, in an interview with the Journal Star, Thieszen said he couldn't explain why he killed his sister because he didn't understand it himself. He said he was 18 or 19 before he realized the enormity of what he had done.
"The realization, it's always there. It follows me. It's ahead of me. It's all around me," he said in that interview.
Also in 2007, Sharon Hanke, a biological daughter of Edwin and Joyce Thieszen, told the Journal Star that after Sacha's murder, her family fell apart. Her parents began to push away family and friends and eventually sold their belongings and went into hiding.
Hanke said at the time that she and her brother, Shea, who was one of three adopted into the family, thought about Sacha a lot, and missed her. The Thieszens had adopted Sacha in 1977 when she was 18 months old.
She said at the time that Sydney Thieszen should never be allowed to return to society, and she was appalled there was even the smallest chance he might have an opportunity for parole.
Shea, who went by a different name in 2007, said in an interview Sacha was the family member to which he was closest. He was 13 when he found his sister's body that day in 1987.
“The sight of her laying in the bathtub with her pants unzipped, bullet holes in her chest, blood all over except her extremely pale skin that used to be a golden tan, has never left my mind,” he said. “I can see it as clear as the day I found her.”
After her death, he left the family and kept in touch only with Hanke, he said.
After last year's hearing, York County District Judge James Stecker sentenced Thieszen, then 44, to 70 years to life, giving him a chance at parole in 2026. And he kept in place a sentence of six to 20 years on the weapons conviction.
Thieszen appealed the sentence, saying it was excessive and disproportionate, and a de facto life sentence without parole.
On Friday, the Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed the sentence, saying the district court did not abuse its discretion in imposing it.