By Colman McCarthy
Sunday, January 17, 2010; B07
ANATOMY OF AN EXECUTION
The Life and Death Of Douglas Christopher Thomas
By Todd C. Peppers and Laura Trevvett Anderson
Northeastern Univ. 309 pp. $29.95
In a 5-4 opinion delivered on March 1, 2005 by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court ruled that executing minors convicted of capital murder was "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. In Roper v. Simmons, Kennedy argued that citizens under 18 are less culpable than adult murderers: "Their own vulnerability and comparative lack of control over their immediate surroundings means juveniles have a greater claim than adults to be forgiven for failing to escape negative influences in their whole environment."
Translation from legalese to lingo: Screwing up, messing up and getting mixed up happen when you are under 18.
Roper v. Simmons came too late for the 22 juvenile offenders killed in the mostly Southern death-belt states since the court's reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976. Among them was Douglas Christopher Thomas, drugged to death on Jan. 10, 2000, in Virginia's Greensville Correctional Center for the 1990 murder of his 14-year-old girlfriend's parents in their Middlesex County, Va., bedroom.
If anyone's life epitomized Justice Kennedy's belief in mercy for those "failing to escape negative influences," it was Thomas's. Abandoned at separate times by both an ineffectual mother and a no-account father, he was legally adopted in early childhood by loving grandparents. Eleven years old when they died months apart, the unmoored Thomas was described by a school psychologist as "seriously emotionally disturbed."
Among those attempting to rescue the boy -- who in high school was drinking alcohol, smoking pot, pilfering, breaking into houses, skipping class and earning dismal grades -- was Laura Trevvett Anderson. She was Thomas's special education teacher at Clover Hill High School, Midlothian, Va. Anderson's friendship would last until Thomas's final moments of life in the Greensville death chamber. With co-author Todd C. Peppers, a professor at Roanoke College and a lecturer at the Washington and Lee University School of Law, she has written an encompassing and often soulful account of the brief life of a person who was both victimizer and victim, friendless and befriended.
No sentimentalizing is to be found in these pages of well-documented and carefully crafted prose. "We do not argue," the authors write, "that Chris Thomas was so overcome with forces beyond his control that he was not morally responsible for the terrible criminal acts in which he participated. At a basic level, Chris's choice to partake in a plot to kill Jessica Wiseman's parents was the product of free will and self-interest." His decision to kill "was the product of rational choice."
Convicted of capital murder -- a jury verdict that surprised the prosecutor -- Thomas was entombed for eight years in the world of mental illness, cruelty and subdued chaos that is death row. In chapter five, "Life on the Row," the authors describe the work of Marie Deans, a prisoners' rights advocate who founded the Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons in 1983 and later the Virginia Mitigation Project. For nearly three decades, she has been the firewall between prosecutors hellbent for executions and impoverished inmates whose death sentences she sees as arbitrary, baseless and inhumane. Deans, who deserves a biography of her own, brings to both the pre-conviction and post-conviction parts of a murder trial evidence on the defendant's background that argues against a death sentence. Her success rate is astonishing: In the first 20 years of working on more than 200 capital trials, only two of "her" defendants have been executed.
Thomas might be alive today had his trial lawyers accepted Deans's pro-bono offer to be a mitigation expert. They declined. Recalling her many prison interviews with Thomas -- appeals lawyers brought her in -- Deans told the authors: "I did feel motherly toward Chris. People think I feel motherly toward all the men [on the row] and that's not true. Some of those men I didn't really like, much less want to be their mother. I did feel motherly to him. I couldn't help that with Chris. He was my son's age. He was just a kid."
A major addition to death-penalty literature, what Peppers and Anderson tell about one inmate in one state in one cell block could easily be the story of any of the 3,200 people now stashed on the nation's death rows. The story of Chris Thomas is unique only because two educators chose not to let it be forgotten that he was a human being. They saw him as more than his crime.
Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace.