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USA: Further information on Death Penalty/Legal Concern: Douglas Christopher Thomas

, رقم الوثيقة: AMR 51/098/1999

Douglas Christopher Thomas was granted a stay of execution on 16 june 1999, five hours before he was due to be executed.

PUBLIC AI Index: AMR 51/98/99
17 June 1999
Further information on UA 105/99 (AMR 51/77/99, 12 May 1999) - Death Penalty
/ Legal Concern
USA (Virginia)Douglas Christopher Thomas, aged 26
Five hours before he was scheduled to be executed on the evening of 16 June
1999, Douglas Christopher Thomas was granted a stay of execution by the Virginia
Supreme Court.
Chris Thomas was convicted in 1991 of the 1990 murders of J.B. Wiseman and
Kathy Wiseman, the parents of his 14-year-old girlfriend Jessica Wiseman. He
received a 65-year prison sentence for the murder of J.B. Wiseman, and was
sentenced to death for the murder of Kathy Wiseman.
The defence appealed for the stay following the state Supreme Court’s ruling
on 11 June 1999, in an unrelated case, that juvenile courts must notify both
parents when a juvenile is charged with a crime. In 1990 Chris Thomas’s father
had not been notified that his son had been charged in juvenile court and would
be tried as an adult. The state Supreme Court granted the stay, without comment,
and said it would hear the case in September.
According to his lawyers, Chris Thomas was “tearful” and “very joyous” when
he received the news of the stay, and immediately rang his parents to tell
them. An hour earlier he had said his final goodbyes to them. In an interview
from death row a few days before, he had expressed his remorse for the 1990
shootings: “I’ve re-lived that night over and over in my head for eight and
a half years. I don’t say that because I’m here [in a death cell]. I say that
because what happened was out of character for me.” He reiterated his claim
that he had not fired the second, fatal, shot at Kathy Wiseman (see original
UA). He said that he was “trying to maintain hope” that the governor would
grant clemency.
When the stay was granted, Governor Gilmore had yet to announce his decision
on whether or not he would grant clemency. As part of the clemency petition
presented to him, Chris Thomas’s lawyers had included two affidavits from women
who had recently come forward after seeing media reports of the case. They
claimed that they had been held in juvenile detention with Jessica Wiseman
(a claim since verified), and that she had admitted to them that she had fired
the second shot at her mother. Jessica Wiseman, who has issued a statement
denying this claim, was tried as a juvenile and released in 1997 when she turned
21.
In recent days, the Virginia press has reported the growing support for clemency,
including from the forensic psychologist who, in an unusual turn of events
(see original UA), had testified for both the defence and prosecution at Chris
Thomas’s trial. He reportedly stated that the death sentence against Chris
Thomas represented “the worst defeat of my career”. He added that he supports
the death penalty, but that he would “hate to see this boy get executed”. It
was also reported that the trial judge, who died in 1998, had long been concerned
by the death sentence against Chris Thomas. A close friend said the judge had
“expressed to me many times in the years after this conviction that he was
very disturbed by the outcome.”
2
The President of the American Bar Association wrote to Governor Gilmore: “In
our view, the execution of people for crimes they committed while children
is unacceptable in a civilized society, irrespective of guilt or innocence.
The vast disparity in sentences between these two juvenile co-defendants -
death for the 17-year-old and release from prison at age 21 for the 14-year-old
- is particularly troubling.”
Amongst the international support for clemency cited by the local press was
a “faxed petition from Amnesty International with about 650 signatures”,
according to a spokesperson for the governor.
On 14 June Amnesty International Secretary General Pierre Sané wrote to
President Clinton, Secretary of State Albright and Attorney General Reno, urging
that the federal government meet its international obligations by intervening
to stop the execution in the absence of a state-level remedy. The letters pointed
out that the ban on the death penalty against those under 18 at the time of
the crime is binding on all countries, regardless of which human rights
instruments they have or have not ratified. Pierre Sané wrote: “As we approach
the 21
st
century, the international community can be proud that this ban is
now so widely accepted and adhered to that it has become a principle of customary
international law. It is therefore sadly ironic, to say the least, that the
country which so often claims to be the most progressive force for human rights
in the world, is currently the only country known to be executing people for
crimes committed when they were children.”
On 16 June Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights,
called on the federal and state authorities to stop the execution of Chris
Thomas and “reaffirm the customary international law ban on the use of the
death penalty on juvenile offenders.” Mary Robinson made her statement in the
Russian Federation, after a visit to the Butyrka pre-trial detention centre
in Moscow, where a number of detainees should be taken off death row following
President Yeltsin’s recent commutation of all death sentences in the Russian
Federation. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said: “At a time when
the international community is increasingly moving towards banning the death
penalty altogether, as evidenced by Russia’s recent moratorium on capital
punishment, it would be sad to see the United States go against accepted
standards on the treatment of juvenile offenders by executing Mr. Thomas.”
Mary Robinson acknowledged the seriousness of the crime of which Chris Thomas
was convicted, and expressed sympathy for the family of the victims. However,
she said, “abolition of the death penalty contributes to the enhancement of
human dignity and to the progressive development of human rights.”
Amnesty International welcomes the stay of execution, but reiterates that Chris
Thomas’s continuing sentence of death violates international law. The
organization has yet to receive any response from the federal authorities to
its letters of 14 June.
No further action by the UA Network is requested at present. Many thanks to
all who sent appeals on behalf of Chris Thomas.

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