LINCOLN — A judge has ruled that a pair of prison inmates should be allowed to marry via videoconference, rejecting arguments that such a video ceremony would be a waste of time and money because it would not be legally valid.

Lawyers for the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services had argued that unless the two inmates, who are housed in separate prisons, were both physically present before a magistrate or minister, the marriage would be a "charade."

But Lancaster County District Judge Robert Otte ruled Tuesday that the department was misreading state statutes requiring couples to be married "in the presence" of a magistrate or minister.

Otte ruled that videoconferencing technology is widely used by the court system, and would meet legal standards if used in the wedding of Paul Gillpatrick and Niccole Wetherell.

The judge said the department was blocking the inmates' constitutional right to be married, and questioned if the state would have made the same argument if a soldier stationed overseas and a bride still living in the United States sought to marry via video.

Mike Gooch, an attorney hired by the ACLU of Nebraska to handle the case, said he will immediately request that a marriage ceremony be set up for the couple.

A spokeswoman with the Nebraska Attorney General's Office said her office would have no comment on the ruling, but an appeal is anticipated.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of the two inmates two years ago after prison officials denied the couple's request to marry, citing both "legal and security" issues.

Department rules allow couples to marry if it would not pose a threat to security but prohibit transportation of an inmate to another facility to facilitate a marriage.

The agency, in court documents, argued that it would be a waste of time and money to stage a wedding because if both inmates could not be physically present it would be invalid.

Gillpatrick and Wetherell met through a mutual friend before entering prison. They have carried on a romance via letters while incarcerated and have been engaged for four years.

Wetherell, 35, is incarcerated at the state's prison for women in York. She was among three people sentenced to life in prison for their roles in the 1998 slaying of 19-year-old Scott Catenacci at Bellevue's Haworth Park. Catenacci was stabbed at least 57 times in the group slaying. Due to the life sentence, Wetherell could never be released from prison, unless the State Board of Pardons decides to make her eligible for parole.

Gillpatrick, 43, is being held at the State Penitentiary in Lincoln. He was sentenced to 55 years to 90 years in prison for second-degree murder and use of a firearm to commit a felony. He was convicted, along with a sister, in the 2009 slaying of a former Omaha firefighter, Robby Robinson. Gillpatrick is not eligible for release on parole until 2039.

When the prison wedding controversy first became public in 2014, then-Gov. Dave Heineman said it would be "an outrage" if the state had to spend money to accommodate the marriage.

But the ACLU and the judge said the cost of a wedding ceremony via Skype or videoconferencing would be inconsequential.

State prison officials have said they set up two to three marriage ceremonies a year, but they are typically between an inmate and a non-inmate.

Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska, said the judge's ruling affirms that prison inmates still have fundamental rights, "including the right to marry."

Contact the writer: 402-473-9584, paul.hammel@owh.com

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