The Virginia Supreme Court stayed an execution scheduled for tonight, citing a ruling it made just five days ago that juveniles cannot be prosecuted unless both of their parents are notified.
The stay was announced about five hours before Douglas Christopher Thomas, 26, was scheduled to die at 9 p.m. for killing two people when he was a teenager.
This afternoon's ruling came a few hours after attorneys for Thomas filed a petition with the court that noted similarities between the Thomas case and that of Jeramie Baker, who was granted a new trial last Friday.
In the Baker case, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Stafford County officials violated state law by prosecuting Baker for stabbing a convenience store clerk in 1996, when he was 17, without notifying his father of his arrest. Baker was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Law enforcement officials have expressed fears that the Baker ruling would force the retrial of hundreds of people convicted while juveniles in many types of crimes.
Thomas was convicted of murdering his girlfriend's parents, James B. and Kathy Wiseman, both 32, in their Middlesex County home Nov. 10, 1990. Jessica Wiseman urged Thomas to shoot her parents, who objected to their daughter's relationship with Thomas, according to court records. At the time, Thomas was 17 and Jessica Wiseman was 14.
Because of her age, Wiseman could not be tried as an adult. Although Wiseman was charged with first-degree murder, her case remained in Juvenile Court, where she was found to be a delinquent and ordered to serve the maximum time: until her 21st birthday, in July 1997. She has been free since then. In 1994, the law was amended to change the minimum age for which a juvenile can be tried as an adult from 15 to 14.
Thomas's case was transferred from Juvenile to Circuit Court, where the teenager pleaded guilty to killing Jessica's father but not guilty to killing her mother. At a trial in 1991, a jury found Thomas guilty on all counts and, because of the multiple murders, sentenced him to death.
Court documents listed the name of Thomas's father but said "whereabouts unknown." Until he began to visit his son on death row, Thomas's father had seen Thomas only once in his life, on the day of his birth, according to one of Thomas's attorneys, Lisa P. O'Donnell.
But today, O'Donnell said, Thomas's first request after hearing word of the stay was to call both of his parents. They had been there earlier today but had been required to leave at 3 p.m. Thomas "was stunned but very much elated" by the stay, O'Donnell said.
Rob Lee, director of the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center, who filed today's motion for Thomas, said: "Thomas's father would have been easy to locate because he worked at the post office in Charlottesville, where he has lived since 1982. He also had a Social Security number, filed tax returns and had a listed telephone number."
The state Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in September on whether Thomas should have a new trial. Trish Krueger, the court's chief deputy clerk, said today's decision came from a panel of three judges, but by tradition, no announcement was made about the vote. Krueger said it takes only one judge to grant a stay.
David Botkins, spokesman for Attorney General Mark L. Earley (R), said his office "will be prepared to argue . . . before the court" that the Baker ruling does not apply in Thomas's case.
After a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals granted Baker a new trial in September -- the ruling upheld by the Virginia Supreme Court last week -- the state General Assembly changed the law to require notification of only one parent. But the revision doesn't take effect until next month.
Roanoke city prosecutor Don Caldwell, president of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth's Attorneys, said the stay of execution "certainly is consistent" with the Baker ruling. Caldwell, whose association worked to have the law changed, said that "it remains to be seen how many cases will be affected" by the Baker decision.
"It's not going to be an avalanche" of overturned verdicts, according to Marvin Miller, of Alexandria, a member of the executive committee of the Virginia College of Criminal Defense Attorneys and a director of the National Association of Defense Attorneys.
"The reach is not going to be that great" because Virginia rules say an objection to a failure to notify both parents had to have been raised at the time of the transfer of the defendant from juvenile to adult court, Miller said.
Earley's office opposed the eleventh-hour motion by Thomas's attorneys, calling it "frivolous in both law and fact." Assistant Attorney General Pamela A. Rumpz noted that Thomas "has waited until his execution was imminent [before] raising a purported `Baker' claim."
Another of Thomas's attorneys, Lawrence H. Woodward Jr., of Virginia Beach, said, "We thought the Baker case was pretty clear and cogent." Nonetheless, "when the call came, we were literally feet from where he was to be put to death, and we didn't know if it was going to be good news or bad."
Rumpz wrote that "nothing prevented him from making the Baker argument at trial and on appeal." Furthermore, Rumpz noted that both Thomas and his original attorney signed a written waiver of the Juvenile Court's jurisdiction" when the case was transferred to the Circuit Court.
The state also contended that because Thomas was adopted by his maternal grandparents when he was 2 years old, the parental rights of his biological parents were terminated.
This week, two women who served time with Wiseman in juvenile detention centers told Thomas's attorneys that Wiseman admitted to them that she was the one who fired the shot that killed her mother. Although her whereabouts are unknown, Wiseman denied the women's allegations in a statement issued through an attorney.