Written By: Billy Sinclair
The crime that sent William Lee Thompson to Florida’s death row evokes very little sympathy for him. More than three decades ago, March 30, 1976, Thompson and Rocky Surace escorted two women to a Florida motel room. The pair planned to extort money from the families of the women. One of the women told the crime duo that she could raise $200 to $300 from her family but she was actually only able to get $25. That paltry sum must have infuriated the two thugs. From the public record, it can be reasonably assumed that Surace was the one angered most by the small amount of money the woman managed to talk her family out of. A witness testified years later that Surace seemed to be the one in charge criminal venture—not Thompson.
But identifying who was in charge seems insignificant when one considers what they both did to the woman after she failed to raise the anticipated $200 to $300. Surace partner removed a chain belt he was wearing and forced the woman into an adjacent room where he made her undress. While Surace punched her in the face, Thompson began beating her with the belt. Spurred by that horrible primal instinct to be unnecessarily brutal when the violent human gene is triggered, Surace or Thompson took a chair leg and rammed it into the woman’s vagina, ripping a hole in its inner wall that caused internal bleeding.
Not satisfied that the chair leg had caused enough pain, the two men—if they could really be called that at the moment they were torturing the woman—repeated the process with a nightstick. They followed this incomprehensible torture with a session of burning her with lit cigarettes, forcing her to eat a sanitary napkin, and making her lick spilt beer on the floor. And as if these human degradations were not enough, they continued to beat her with the belt, chair leg, and nightstick. At some point during this reign of terror, they forced the woman to call her mother once again to ask for more money. After she complied—and God only knows how she was able to comply—they continued torture the poor soul until she died.
If the death penalty was in fact reserved for those who commit the most “heinous crimes,” Thompson and Surace would certainly have a place at the front of the line. It would be difficult to imagine a more methodical, premeditated murder than the one they committed. I spent nearly six years on Louisiana’s death row in the pre-Furman era and not one of the 45 condemned inmates I knew committed a crime comparable to the one committed by William Lee Thompson and Rocky Surace.
Thompson also received the death penalty—and that is where the constitutional rub now lies in his case. On March 9, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court refused review his claim that to allow the State of Florida to execute him after he has spent more than 32 years on Florida’s death row would violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court’s decision triggered a constitutional twit between three justices on the court: Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, and Paul Stevens.
Thomas, of course, came down on the side of the constitutional issue like he has so many times before; namely, that no punishment administered by a State—short of the kind of torture inflicted by Thompson and his criminal confederate—violates the Eighth Amendment. In this particular case, the conservative justice got his legal drawers in such a knot that he spewed out more invective in this opinion than was necessary. He pointed out that Thompson confessed to the admittedly horrible crime, but when he came time to accept the deserved sentence of execution demanded by the State of Florida, he chose to fight the actual carrying out of that sentence.
Justice Thomas said Thompson’s refusal to accept what the associate justice described as a deserved execution makes “a mockery of our system of justice … for a convicted murderer, who, through his own interminable efforts of delay … has secured the almost-indefinite postponement of his sentence, to then claim that the almost-indefinite postponement renders his sentence unconstitutional” is shameful.
Justice Breyer had to bring judicial clarity to the 32-year delay issue. He pointed out that the three decade delay “resulted from constitutionally defective death penalty procedures for which [Thompson] was not responsible.” It was Breyer’s position that Thompson should not be barred from presenting a “cruel and unusual” punishment claim because he chose to exercise “his right to seek appellate review of his death sentence.”
Justice Stevens has become increasingly weary of the court’s continuing constitutional debate over the death penalty. In the court’s decision last year upholding the constitutionality of the three-drug protocol used in lethal injections, Justice Stevens said “the time for a dispassionate, impartial comparison of the enormous costs that death penalty litigation imposes on society with the benefits that it produces has arrived.” He echoed those sentiments in the Thompson case by noting that he and Justice Breyer have joined together in a number of cases to say that “delayed executions arguably violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”
Justice Stevens then noted that Thompson’s 32 years on Florida’s death row were spent in a 6-by-9 isolation cell with relief coming only when he was allowed out of the cell one hour each day for exercise. During his years on death row, two death warrants have been signed against him only to have the execution stayed at the last minute. “Some respond that delays in carrying out executions are the result of this Court’s insistence on excessive process,” Justice Stevens wrote. “But delays have multiple causes, including ‘the States’ failure to apply constitutionally sufficient procedures at the time of initial [conviction or] sentencing’.”
Justice Stevens took pains to underscore the most disturbing reality about the “delayed execution” issue: 30 percent of all the death sentences imposed in this country between 1973 and 2000 were overturned and another 129 persons convicted of capital crimes during that period were later exonerated. Justice Stevens concluded his assessment with this observation: “In sum, our experience during the past three decades has demonstrated that delays in state-sponsored killings are inescapable and that executing defendants after such delays is unacceptably cruel. The inevitable cruelty, coupled with the diminished justification for carrying out an execution after the lapse of such much time, reinforces my opinion that contemporary decisions ‘to retain the death penalty as a part of our law are the product of habit and inattention rather than an acceptable deliberative process’.”
William Lee Thompson committed a brutal crime—one so horrific that it lends credence to society’s collective desire to strike back at those who offend it in such a horrendous manner. But a punishment that is irreversible and as unfair as the death penalty should not turn on cases like Thompson. And, more to the point in this particular case, the State of Florida by any rational analysis has forfeited any legitimate right to execute the Thompson. Contrary to Justice Thomas’ argument that Thompson brought about the 32-year delay through his own resistance to the death sentence, the State of Florida could have executed him by now if it had so desired. It has carried out 67 executions since Gary Gilmore was executed in January 1977, effectively ending a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty then in place. One of those 67 persons executed was John Spenkelink who was put to death in May 1979—the next person executed after Gilmore. At one point during the last hours of Spenkelink’s efforts to stave off his execution, the Florida Attorney General’s Office had three planes simultaneously in the air flying its attorneys to various cities to fight any last minute stays.
So the State of Florida could have executed William Lee Thompson pretty much at any point over the last two decades it wanted to—just as it did those other 67 condemned inmates. It would be hard to imagine that any of those who were executed had committed crimes as horrific as Thompson. But for whatever reason, the State of Florida elected rather deliberately not to execute William Lee Thompson and to do so now—some 33 years after he committed his offense—would be an affront to human decency and represent cruel and unusual punishment at its worse.
Justice Stevens is right. The legal, moral and social costs of the death penalty are simply too high to maintain when compared to the minimal benefits it may produce: a revenge satisfaction for the victims’ families and whatever “just deserts” value it may have for the State. Those two benefits, standing alone, are not enough to justify the existence of “state-sponsored killings.”