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Thompson v. Oklahoma

A Question Of Age

In 1983, when he was 15 years old, Wayne Thompson helped to kidnap and kill his abusive brother-in-law, Charles Keene, who had repeatedly beaten Thompson's sister and other members of their family. Thompson's own life would later be spared in a Supreme Court decision which recognized that both society and the law are works in progress.

Grady County prosecutors charged four suspects with Keene's murder--Thompson, his half-brother Tony Mann, and two friends, Richard Jones and Bobby Glass. The state decided to try the cases separately. Before the 15-year-old Thompson could be tried as an adult, however, the prosecution had to prove the prospective merits of the case and convince a district court that there was no reasonable hope of his rehabilitation. A psychiatric examination found that Thompson was mentally competent to stand trial. Police records showed violent behavior in Thompson's past, including arrests for crimes ranging from shoplifting to assault. Prosecutors successfully convinced the court that he should be tried as an adult.

Keene's murder had been especially gruesome. He had been abducted and savagely beaten. His throat and abdomen had been slashed, he had been shot twice, and his body had been weighted with a concrete block before his killers dumped the body into a river. The prosecution introduced three grisly color photographs of Keene's corpse during the trial, after which Thompson was found guilty. In Oklahoma's justice system, trials to determine guilt are separate from a subsequent phase to determine sentencing. Before the death penalty can be applied, a state statute requires proof that "aggravating circumstances" were involved in a capital crime. During the sentencing phase, the prosecution reintroduced the graphic photographs to demonstrate the cruel nature of the murder. The jury agreed that Keene's murder met the criteria for the death penalty. Like his three accomplices, Thompson was sentenced to die (Glass was later killed in prison, while Jones' conviction was overturned).

Thompson's lawyers appealed the sentence. Oklahoma law held that because Thompson had met the criteria to be tried as an adult, he was eligible to be punished as one. The appeals court accepted Thompson's contention that reintroducing two of the graphic crime photographs during the sentencing phase of the trial was a prejudicial prosecution tactic. In light of the amount of other evidence against him, however, the court found that the jury would have passed the death sentence regardless of whether or not they had seen the inflammatory photographs. The appeal was rejected.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Thompson v. Oklahoma - A Question Of Age, The Consensus Of Society, Amnesty International On Capital Punishment