The Nebraska Supreme Court handed down a decision Friday that could send a message protecting victims of hate crimes.
The state's highest court ruled for Joann Brandon in her case against Richardson County, finding the county negligent in the death of JoAnn Brandon's daughter, Teena.
Teena Brandon was a biological female who lived a part her life as a male. Brandon's December 1993 rape and murder formed the story for the movie "Boys Don't Cry."
After her initial rape, Brandon approached then-sheriff of Richardson County Charles Laux and identified her attackers, Thomas Nissen and John Lotter.
Laux notified Nissen and Lotter of the accusation and made no effort to protect Brandon, allowing Lotter and Nissen to find and eventually kill Brandon several days later.
The court found Laux and Richardson County negligent in Brandon's death, a decision JoAnn Brandon's attorneys said would send a message to law enforcement to protect victims of hate crimes.
The court found Richardson County responsible for $80,000 in non-economic damages. Previously, the county had been held responsible for 14 percent of that amount.
"It's a very important case, not only within Nebraska but nationally," said David Buckel, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which served as co-counsel in the case.
"The court sent a strong message to law enforcement that it's important to protect and respect crime victims," Buckel said. "It should not be the case that reporting a crime makes matters worse for you."
Buckel's co-counsel in the case, Herbert Friedman of Friedman Law Offices, said the argument would have a small impact on law enforcement because Laux was an especially bad case.
"I don't think it's going to have an effect because most law enforcement officers aren't like that," Friedman said. "(Laux) is the poster child of what a law enforcement officer ought not be."
Laux and the current sheriff of Richardson County were unavailable for comment.
The county alleged it was not responsible for Brandon's death.
During Laux's questioning of Brandon, he asked her specific details of her raping - questions the Supreme Court deemed "prurient." Included while interviewing Brandon regarding the rapes, Laux's statements and questions included the following:
"So they got ready to poke you?"; "They tried sinking it in your vagina?"; "So then after he couldn't stick it in your vagina he stuck it in your box or in your buttocks, is that right?"; "Did it feel like he stuck it in very far or not?"
"Did he tell you anything about this is how they do it in the penitentiary?"; "Was he enjoying it?"; "Did he think it was funny?"; "Did he play with your breasts or anything?"; and "Well, was he fingering you?"
The Supreme Court remanded the case back to the district court to determine whether JoAnn Brandon proved "that (Teena) Brandon suffered emotional distress so severe that no reasonable person should be expected to endure it and, if so, whether Laux's conduct was a proximate cause of any such distress; to award damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress if JoAnn has proved both that Brandon suffered severe emotional distress, and that Laux's conduct was a proximate cause of that distress; and for a determination of the amount of damages for loss of society."
Buckel said the decision means a lot to many civil rights groups around the country. Buckel said 33 civil rights organizations filed "friend of the court" briefs in the case, including the Nebraska American Civil Liberties Union.
Amy Miller, a staff attorney for the Nebraska ACLU, worked on the case and presented a "friend of the court" brief. Miller said the ACLU was pleased with the decision.
"It accomplished pretty much everything the ACLU and the proponents of the case could have hoped for," Miller said. "This decision definitely sends the message everybody deserves equal treatment under the law."
Buckel said the case was being closely watched by other civil rights groups across the country.
"The thoroughness, the detail and the careful reasoning in the opinion means that other courts around the nation will be paying attention," Buckel said.
Brandon's killers, Lotter and Nissen, have both been convicted of murder and sentenced. Nissen was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences, and Lotter was sentenced to death.