— When Leslie Nibbe Johnson sat before a Senate committee recently, she did her best to describe how her family had been victimized twice by the woman who killed her brother.
Jennifer Nibbe was arrested 10 days after her husband, James Nibbe, was found shot to death in their rural Lake Crystal home Aug. 31, 2010. A day after her arrest, Nibbe called investigators to the Blue Earth County Jail and confessed to the killing.
Jennifer Nibbe’s father, Dan Gilman, and James Nibbe’s family were told about the confession a short time later, Johnson said. So she and other members of her family went to Gilman and asked if they could gather some of their brother’s property.
They weren’t looking for vehicles, furniture or other expensive items the couple had purchased since their marriage. James Nibbe’s family wanted sentimental things, such as gifts from Jim’s father, hunting equipment he used with his brother, his golf clubs, his watch.
Gilman initially told them no problem, said Johnson of rural Vernon Center. He asked the family to make a list he could show to his daughter, then anything that belonged to Jim would be returned.
Two years passed, Jennifer Nibbe pleaded guilty to murder and was sent to prison and Johnson’s family has only been able to recover a fraction of what her brother left behind.
“It is difficult to articulate the frustration eloquently for me,” Johnson told the committee before explaining she doesn’t want another family to face the same problem. “The manupulation and the pain that her father was able to put us through simply because we had no rights just added to the agony and suffering that our family went through.
“It’s bad enough to lose someone. But then you lose someone to murder and you have to struggle for two years to get a pair of tube socks back. It’s really sad.”
Johnson told a similar story to the House Civil Law Committee Tuesday. She was joined by Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder. He has sponsored a bill that would give the family of a murder victim more property rights when the suspected killer is the victim’s spouse.
The bill would adjust an existing law that already prohibits someone from gaining financially through real estate, life insurance benefits or cash assets after being found guilty of killing a spouse. If the new portion of the law is passed, the victim’s family could ask a judge to freeze certain property after someone is charged with a spouse’s murder. That property would remain in storage, and out of the control of the suspect’s family, until the criminal case is over.
A judge also would be given a lot of leeway, Cornish said. He or she could issue an order for an inventory of the couple’s property if the victim’s family doesn’t know what exists. Assets that are needed to pay for attorney’s fees or other bills for the suspect also could be released by the judge, if necessary.
Cornish’s bill passed through the Civil Law Committee unanimously Tuesday and will go to the House Judiciary Committee next for review, Cornish said. The Senate bill also passed through its Judiciary Committe unanimously and is ready for a floor vote.
When Johnson testified before the Senate committee earlier this month, she was joined by Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria. The former Douglas County sheriff, and the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, told the committee he had never seen a situation like the one described by Johnson.
“I didn’t realize this wasn’t covered,” Ingebrigtsen said. “The assailant’s family took control of the property, disposed of the property and left the victim’s family out of any control.”
Cornish, who started working on drafts for the bill last fall, said he has been surprised by how quickly it has been moving toward a vote on both sides of the Legislature.
“We will have it on the floor before the first deadline of making it through the committee, so we are very surprised and excited,” he said. “The DFL has been very good to me on this bill and whisked it through committees.
“Compelling testimony from my witness is much the reason, though,” he added, giving most of the credit to Johnson.