Two Nebraska Inmates Sue for Right to Marry

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Tuesday, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Nebraska Department of Corrections on behalf of an engaged couple who have been waiting to get married since 2012. The issue comes down to conflicting policy and state statute.

Paul Gillpatrick and Niccole Wetherell are both in prison for murder. Wetherell went to prison in 1999 for first degree murder and faces a life sentence. Gillpatrick was sentenced in 2010 for second degree murder and is eligible for parole in 2039.

The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services released a statement. They won't comment because of the pending litigation, but they said "public safety is the ultimate concern in this case."

State law requires two people to be in the same room to marry. Nebraska state statute 42-109 says, "the parties shall solemnly declare in the presence of the magistrate or minister and the attending witnesses, that they take each other as husband and wife."

And prison policy won't allow them to be transported from York to Lincoln, or vice versa. It all comes down to one line in the prison's policy on religious services. Policy states, "NDCS will not transport inmates from one institution to another for the marriage ceremony."

And that's what the ACLU takes issue with.

"Paul and Niccole have a right to be married even though they're behind bars," says Amy Miller of ACLU Nebraska.

Which could be possible.

"We've proposed allow them to get married by phone, allow them to get married by Skype," she said.

But 10/11 called the Douglas County Clerks office. They said that wouldn't be legal. And the prison agreed.

"They said we don't think that would be a valid marriage," said Miller.

So this lawsuit brings up some questions about other cases where two people may not be in the same place but want to get married. A soldier serving abroad, for example.

"Should we expand the definition of being physically present so that someone who's currently stationed abroad for the military or traveling for work? Yeah, I think there's an opportunity for the legislature to act," said Miller.

But the ACLU isn't tackling the state statute right now - only the Department of Correctional Services' policy.

It should be noted, both Wetherell and Gillpatrick said they would pay for the transportation costs so it wouldn't fall on taxpayers.