It has been five years since we Californians began anew the business of executing the murderers among us. The state has dutifully put to death four men, heinous criminals all. Now comes Thomas M. Thompson.
His sentence seems to fit the crime--the rape and brutal murder of a Newport Beach woman not yet 21. But one nagging uncertainty remains as Thompson nears his fate. Unlike the four men who preceded him to California's death chamber, Thompson claims he is innocent.
Thompson, slated to die by lethal injection Aug. 5, is by no means the first convicted killer to deny guilt on his way to execution. But the peculiarities of his case have sowed doubts in the minds of many.
Citing new evidence they claim was withheld by prosecutors at the time of his trial, Thompson's attorneys insist their client never raped Ginger Fleischli and might not have killed her.
"This is the first time where a legitimate question of a man's innocence has come forward," said Jeff Gillenkirk with the anti-capital punishment group Death Penalty Focus of California. "This is a classic case for clemency."
His legal appeals virtually exhausted, Thompson's fate now rests in the hands of Gov. Pete Wilson, who is pondering pleas that the death sentence be nudged down to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The prospects appear slim. Wilson has long been a drum beater for victims rights, not death row inmates.
Those who prosecuted Thompson, now 42, call the claims of innocence nonsense, saying evidence of his guilt remains overwhelming. They say his alibi--that he passed out from a mix of booze and hashish and then slept until morning after having consensual sex with Fleischli--is unbelievable. Fleischli's blood soaked through the carpet of the studio apartment five feet from where Thompson says he slept.
The controversy has reinvigorated foes of the death penalty, whose voices had been muted in California since the 1992 execution of Robert Alton Harris put the state's death chamber back in operation. They have mounted an aggressive publicity campaign, enlisting sympathizers ranging from Hollywood stars to former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles.
It has attracted some remarkable supporters. Seven former prosecutors--including the author of California's death penalty law--have weighed in on Thompson's behalf, arguing that the government's case against him lacked the indisputable certainty needed to justify an execution.
Nearly lost in the 11th-hour drama have been Fleischli and her family, who have waited 16 years for her murderer to be punished. They have been left in disbelief, aghast that the tedious process they have so painfully watched is coming to a carnival conclusion.
"It makes me feel bitter," said Jack Fleischli, an older brother of the victim. He remains convinced of the condemned man's guilt and the need for the ultimate penalty. "Tom Thompson is a liar and a coward. He deserves to die for what he did."
In recent days, Pete Wilson has become intimately familiar with the life and crimes of Thomas Martin Thompson. He holds the powers of clemency and is Thompson's last hope for life.
A staunch law-and-order Republican, Wilson has seen four men executed on his watch. He has studiously reviewed their crimes and histories, coming away with words of sympathy for the victims and ire for the condemned.
But the case against Thompson is a bit different for the governor, a fact his advisors don't dispute.
Thompson's predecessors on death row hardly denied their crimes, pleading for mercy because of a damaging childhood or mental illness. Thompson has turned the strategy upside-down, making a case for clemency based on his goodness, not his weaknesses, on innocence, not guilt.
Unlike those executed in California since 1992, Thompson has no prior criminal record or history of violence. He served honorably in the Army and spent some time in college. He worked for a fire department as a photographer. And he has adjusted well to prison life, with one guard declaring Thompson is the only inmate he would trust with his life.
Defense attorneys suggest the real killer might be the co-defendant in the case, David Leitch, Fleischli's sometime lover and Thompson's roommate at the time of the murder.
They cite the "incredible" disparity between the sentences meted out for Thompson and his co-defendant, Leitch, who got 15 years to life and is eligible for parole. They also note that two jurors on the panel that recommended Thompson be put to death have changed their minds and now believe he deserves to live.
Jack Fleischli isn't impressed with Thompson's squeaky-clean background, saying he is like a freeway speeder who's only been caught once. "There are lots of cases where seemingly ordinary people get caught doing violent things," he said. "What did Timothy McVeigh do before Oklahoma City?"