Categories: Essays
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.”


  1. Topics about Crimes » BRUTAL CRIME, CRUEL PUNISHMENT Says:

    […] Billy Sinclair added an interesting post on BRUTAL CRIME, CRUEL PUNISHMENTHere’s a small excerptWilliam 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 … […]

  2. Billy Sinclair Says:

    Thank you for your comments. Billy Sinclair

  3. Adaline Says:

    I am the nice of Rocco Surace, My mothers brother) Sally Ivester was my mothers best friend. I am very PISSED that William is still alive when my uncle Rocky had to die a horrible death in miami fl st. prison 18 years ago I am only 21 years old so I never got to Know my uncle, Because of William lee Thompson. He should Be long Gone. Thats the problem with todays world they will NOT kill the sorry bastards that are on DEATH ROW FOR 30 SUM YEARS. Our Family has done a great deal of suffering over this matter and Thats not RIGHT, My mother said she walked into sallys home one day and saw Sally soeing The words SATAN across William pants Mama said sally said “he made me do it” . He needs to die and be with Satan.

  4. Adaline Says:

    And GOD ONLY KNOWS who is the one who actualy did those horrible things to her, And that bitch who was so called a wittness THe hell with that ahe was just as guilty in my familys eyes. We love and miss u Sally and Rocky.

  5. kay peterson Says:

    The judicary and lawyers have a lot to answer for as well as the bleeding hearts against the ineffective expensive way of dealing with the death penalty. There are psychopathic sadistic people on death row that there is no doubt sensible doubt about their guilt. There is no excuse for the waste in their appeals, though if it can cause them extra suffering thats a real bonus.In more recent times there is far better forensic capacity regarding crime analysis and where past crimes relate to the current one they ought to be included in trials as additional information. The defense are allowed to attempt to discredit prosecution witnesses even by using blatant lies.The idiocy of not retrying those cleared and sometimes those convicted is stupidly arbitrary.Retry certain cases guilty or innocent by judge alone in a speedy trial if the prior outcome is questionable. There are on occasion poorly defended clients who are wrongly convicted or overly harshly sentenced or unbelivably let off by stupid jurists. Half the jury pool ought to come from people with a graduate degree of which half of them ought to be from science based feilds to cope with complexity of expert witnesses. The other half of the jury ought to come from demographically same levels as the person tried who are better able to know the world of the accused. Clear up the constitutional issues once and for all in the spirit it was made by the originators, not the extrapolated modern reintrpretations of people with agendas of recent times. The forefathers had no issue with a death penalty. Also look at the past standards when a trial by peers was made. Peers now need to include peers of the expert witnesses as well as real peers of the accused. Not getting hired jury selecting persons working for the defence who select persons who have nothing commonly at stake of the victim or know the world of the accused or want too make money selling their jurist duty story plus too stupid getting mentally exhausted by expert witnesses, then insecurely making no decision that counts. The forefathers never anticipated the low levels defence lawyers would stoop to for a personal win as back then any such lawyers would be marched out of town. The judicary are from the same group as the lawyers who make massive incomes out of appeals so they don’t dare stop what they once were part of. Furthermore, justice is carried out differently in states often driven by the views of those who donate the most to campaigns to retain the type of district attorneys fitting their ideological political slants of donators or popularist views of certain groups that prevail.
    Easy to fix if self interest of money and power of a few wasn’t involved. Outside of Texas which is effecient, but into overkill including badly behaved simpletons- ought to be just long sentences- as well as death deserving evil psychopaths, the majority on death row need no sympathy as they had none or ever would.They are there because their deeds and prognosis were evil.

  6. kay peterson Says:

    If vigilantes wanted to really be effective they would target the defence attorneys who are renown for getting off the worst murders and sadist serial sex offenders, or furthering their appeals if convicted as well as jurists who opted to let such off when obviously guilty. Vigilantes are useless where it really counts since by the time they know the henious perpetrator it’s too late to get them as they are protected once accused or even hidden after release. To speed up the process of true justice defence attorneys need to get the message of delivering only a truly fair totally honest defence and jurists to realise they better respond appropriately to a trial. Murders mostly don’t provide a recording of their crime that’s date stamped, so absolutely no doubt is impossible to achieve and understand the notion of true probable doubt in terms of most or least likely interpretation of evidence. Most of these psychopathic criminals aren’t the primary problem,it’s their nature,plus they mostly get caught. It’s often for related crimes earlier, but some how get off or out too soon. With the current system, outside of Texas where more astray fools are sentenced rather than the grandiose entitled murders, serial sex offenders presume they won’t face an earthly reconing if ever caught. Their excuse making hubris presumes that their lies then supported by a sloppy system will keep them free or alive at least. Many of them aren’t so stupid that if it was sure death they’d face they’d readilly risk that fate,.So then lowering their means of gratification to smaller evils or choosing targets that wouldn’t be in our face, rarely discovered, similar to themselves. Sadly, even vigilantes are no answer, to feel effective they mostly only talk never doing the walk or strike someone minor, a soft target disprapportionately.

  7. Cindy Lassiter Says:

    I noticed the victim is not named which is illustrative of what happens to murdered victims in the “justice” system. They are not represented by the prosecutor but the perpetrator has all the judges and lawyers in their corner, including the pampered legislators who make it possible for the murderer to delay for years what he should have got year one after conviction. The dead victim and the poor taxpayer who is funding this bloated, nonsensical farce of the injustice system are the ones who should get the pity from all these “great” legal minds. If one reads these crime stories often as I, one learns to be locked, loaded and wary. Judged by 12 than carried out by 6 sounds like really good odds.

  8. Costa Says:

    He’s now posting on the following website seeking any local ladies who would be interested in dating him.

    He’s now posting on the following website seeking any local ladies who would be interested in dating him.

    Feel free to check it out…leaves one answering the question….what can I do to get a freer ride for 32 years and my own government sponsered dating page? Shit, we should jsut start putting our inmantes up at a Holiday Inn for their stints in jail…about the same thing.
    Feel free to check it out…leaves one answering the question….what can I do to get a freer ride for 32 years and my own government sponsered dating page? Shit, we should jsut start putting our inmantes up at a Holiday Inn for their stints in jail…about the same thing.

  9. gloria baron Says:

    I am the aunt of Rocco Surace and lost all contact with my family. I would like to be able to contact Adaline, niece of Rocco Surace.

  10. Shar Newman Says:

    To Costa: I did check out that website that you mentioned, and I just want to point out that it is not a government site. It is a site hosted by St. Michael Ministries that seeks to find people willing to write to those among us convicted of their horrible crimes. I think that is an important clarification.

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