Brandon's Mother Seeks More Money
[LINCOLN, NE] - An attorney for the mother of murder victim Teena Brandon made an "off-the-wall" request of the Nebraska Supreme Court on Tuesday: award a respectable financial payment and end the appeals.
Lincoln attorney Herbert Friedman appeared before the high court to appeal JoAnn Brandon's lawsuit against Richardson County and its former sheriff, Charles Laux, who badly mishandled the investigation. The justices wanted to know what relief Friedman was seeking.
"This is off the wall," he responded. "It seems to me this court could easily pick a figure and be done with this."
After the roughly 20-minute hearing, Friedman said there was no legal precedent for the state Supreme Court to award damages in a civil case.
"But they do have the power to do what they think is inherently just," he said.
At trial, JoAnn Brandon sought $500,000 in damages against the county. A year ago, District Court Judge Orville Coady ordered Richardson County to pay a total of $98,223.
Tuesday's appeal centered on two portions of the award: $7,000 for emotional distress Teena Brandon suffered at the hands of the sheriff, and $5,000 for her "intrinsic value" to her mother.
Lincoln attorney Richard Boucher argued the high court should allow the judge's decision to stand because it was made after a thoughtful review of the evidence. "The evidence in this case is that the reward is reasonable," Boucher said.
The case involves the Dec. 31, 1993, stabbing and shooting of Teena Brandon, 21, in a rented farmhouse south of Humboldt. Her killers also shot and killed Lisa Lambert, 23, of Humboldt, and Phillip DeVine, 22, of Fairfield, Iowa, because they were in the house at the time.
The case attracted national attention when it was learned that Brandon had been living as a man and dating women in Falls City, Humboldt and Lincoln. It later inspired the film "Boys Don't Cry," in which actress Hilary Swank won an Oscar for her portrayal of a character based on Teena Brandon.
On Christmas Eve 1993, John Lotter and Marvin Thomas Nissen beat and raped Brandon because they were angry she had fooled them into believing she was a man.
Juries later convicted the men of rape and three counts of first-degree murder. Lotter is on death row, while Nissen earned himself a life sentence by testifying against his former friend.
In the wake of the criminal trials, JoAnn Brandon has won court decisions that held the sheriff and county failed to protect her daughter after she reported the rape.
Authorities allowed Nissen and Lotter to remain free even though Brandon told the sheriff they had threatened her life if she reported them. In addition, Laux pursued a crude and demeaning line of questioning of Brandon in the hours after she was raped.
In late 1999, Judge Coady ruled in JoAnn Brandon's favor but awarded her only $17,000.
On appeal, the Supreme Court found Laux's behavior toward Brandon was "beyond all possible bounds of decency, and is to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community." The court ordered Coady to increase the base award to $86,000 and review the additional claims against the county.
In October 2001, Coady found little evidence to support JoAnn Brandon's claim of loss of companionship. In part, he based his decision on the fact that JoAnn Brandon did not pick up her daughter after she was raped to bring her to the safety of Lincoln.
As a result, he set the "intrinsic value" of Teena Brandon's life at $5,000.
In addition, the judge found the sheriff intentionally inflicted extreme emotional distress upon Teena Brandon. But he said there was no medical evidence to award more than $7,000 -- $1,000 for each day between her rape and murder.
On Tuesday, Friedman said that while the Brandon family wasn't the Brady Bunch, JoAnn and Teena had a close relationship. In the several months she lived in Richardson County, Teena called her mother frequently and visited once or twice a week.
After the rape, they decided it was not safe for her to return to Lincoln because the rapists knew JoAnn Brandon's address. So the mother made arrangements for the daughter to stay with Lisa Lambert in Humboldt.
Regarding a lack of medical evidence that Teena Brandon suffered distress from the sheriff's questions, Friedman said the judge set an impossible standard under the circumstances.
"She didn't live long enough for a psychiatrist to look at her and say there was post-traumatic stress disorder," he said.
Short of setting their own award in the case, the Supreme Court justices should send the matter to a district judge for a new verdict, Friedman argued. And the judge should be anyone but Coady, he added.
In defense of the judge's ruling, Boucher argued there was a limit to the county's responsibility for the inappropriate actions of its former sheriff. He also said it was reasonable for the judge to conclude that mother and daughter had, at best, a tenuous relationship.
When Brandon told her mother that she had been sexually assaulted, "no one came to Richardson County to retrieve her. No effort was made to get to Richardson County to help and comfort her in her time of need," Boucher said.
The high court's ruling in the appeal could take as long as several months.