Thompson v. Oklahoma 1988

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Thompson v. Oklahoma 1988

Appellant: William Wayne Thompson

Appellee: State of Oklahoma

Appellant's Claim: That executing him for committing murder when he was fifteen years old would be cruel and unusual punishment.

Chief Lawyer for Appellant: Harry F. Tepker, Jr.

Chief Lawyer for Appellee: David W. Lee

Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O'Connor, John Paul Stevens

Justices Dissenting: William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Byron R. White (Anthony M. Kennedy did not participate)

Date of Decision: June 29, 1988

Decision: The Supreme Court reversed Thompson's death sentence.

Significance: Thompson said the Eighth Amendment forbids executing people for crimes they commit when they are less than sixteen years old.

I n 1983, when he was fifteen years old, William Wayne Thompson had a brother-in-law named Charles Keene. Keene was married to Thompson's sister, Vicki, whom Keene beat and abused. Thompson decided to end his sister's suffering.

On the night of January 22, 1983, Thompson left his mother's house with his half-brother and two friends to kill Charles Keene. In the early morning hours of January 23, a neighbor named Malcom "Possum" Brown was awakened by the sound of a gunshot on his porch. Someone pounded on Brown's door shouting, "Possum, open the door, let me in. They're going to kill me." Brown called the police and then opened the door to see Keene being beaten by four men. Before the police arrived, the four men took Keene away in a car.

Thompson and his friends shot Keene twice, cut his throat, chest, and stomach, broke one of his legs, chained him to a concrete block, and threw him into the Washita River. One of Thompson's friends said Thompson cut Keene "so the fish could eat his body." Authorities did not find Keene's body until almost four weeks after the murder.

Child or Adult Murderer?

As most states do, Oklahoma had a juvenile justice system. The system's goal was to reform childhood criminals in juvenile justice centers rather than punish them in prisons. Oklahoma, however, allowed childhood murderers to be tried and punished as adults if they understood what they were doing and had no hope for reform.

Prior to the murder, Thompson had been arrested four times for assault and battery and once for attempted burglary. Mary Robinson, who worked for the juvenile justice system, said the counseling Thompson received in the juvenile justice system did not improve his behavior. The court decided Thompson understood the severity of murder and could not be reformed by the juvenile justice system. Thompson was tried as an adult, convicted of murder, and sentenced to death.

Thompson appealed his conviction and sentence. The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prevents the federal government from using "cruel and unusual punishment." States, including Oklahoma, must obey the Eighth Amendment under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. During his appeals, Thompson argued that executing him for a crime he committed when he was fifteen years old would be cruel and unusual.

The court of criminal appeals ruled in favor of Oklahoma. It said if Thompson was old enough to commit murder and old enough to be tried as an adult, he was old enough to be punished as an adult. Thompson appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Child Welfare League of America and others filed briefs (official documents giving evidence on Thompson's behalf) urging the Court to outlaw the death penalty for juvenile offenders.

Court Spares Thompson's Life

With a 5–3 decision, the Supreme Court reversed Thompson's death sentence. Writing for the Court, Justice John Paul Stevens said executing people for childhood crimes is cruel and unusual punishment. In short, the Eighth Amendment forbids executing people for crimes they commit when under sixteen years old.

Justice Stevens said the Constitution does not explain what it means by "cruel and unusual punishment." Instead, the Supreme Court must decide based on what American society thinks is cruel and unusual. To do this, the Court reviewed laws affecting juveniles.

In the United States at the time, eighteen states set sixteen as the minimum age for the death penalty. In most of the fifty states, people under sixteen could not vote, sit on a jury, marry, buy alcohol or cigarettes, drive, or gamble. Stevens said those laws meant people under sixteen lack the intelligence, experience, and education to make adult decisions. If children cannot make adult decisions, it is cruel and unusual to punish them as adults, especially when the punishment is death.

Cruel and Unusual Children

Three justices dissented, which means they disagreed with the Court's decision. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a dissenting opinion. Scalia said the Eighth Amendment does not require a strict rule that nobody can be executed for crimes committed under sixteen. Scalia pointed out that when the United States adopted the Eighth Amendment, children could be executed for crimes committed at age fourteen.

Scalia said courts should be able to decide each case separately. The question is whether a childhood murderer has the ability to understand and control his conduct like an adult. If so, he should be punished like an adult. Scalia said the Court's decision would allow hardened criminals who are just one day short of sixteen to escape severe punishment for the most severe crimes. In a society that says people should pay for murder with their lives, that result may be cruel and unusual.

Suggestions for further reading

Almonte, Paul. Capital Punishment. New York: Crestwood House, 1991.

Gottfried, Ted. Capital Punishment: The Death Penalty Debate. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1997.

Henson, Burt M., and Ross R. Olney. Furman v. Georgia: The Death Penalty and the Constitution. New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1996.

Herda, D.J. Furman v. Georgia: The Death Penalty Case. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1994.

Nardo, Don. Death Penalty. Lucent Books, 1992.

O'Sullivan, Carol. The Death Penalty: Identifying Propaganda Techniques. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1989.


At age sixteen in 1985, Sean Sellers murdered his mother, stepfather, and a convenience store clerk in Oklahoma. Around that time, Sellers worshiped Satan and played the game "Dungeons and Dragons." He told a friend that he killed the clerk just to know what it felt like to kill. There was evidence that Sellers killed his parents to escape their supervision.

Sellers, however, said his mother abused him verbally and physically. In 1992, a psychiatric test said Sellers suffered from multiple personality disorder. Some say this prevented Sellers from controlling his behavior when he committed murder.

In prison for his crimes, Sellers rejected Satan and became a Christian. He wrote poems and a Christian comic book. A Christian ministry helped Sellers make a video urging young people not to follow his bad deeds. His stepfather's family and prison guards, however, said Sellers' Christianity was an act to help him escape the death penalty.

If it was an act, it did not work. On February 4 1999, when Sellers was twenty-nine years old, Oklahoma executed him by lethal injection. It was the first time since 1959 that a state executed someone for committing murder at age sixteen. The execution revived the debate over whether the death penalty is appropriate for juvenile offenders.

Romano, Lois. "Reaching Out as Time is Running Out; Teenage Killer of 3 Becomes Christian Book Writer and Contributor to Web Site." Washington Post, January 22, 1999.

Steins, Richard. The Death Penalty: Is It Justice? Twenty First Century Books, 1995.

Tushnet, Mark. The Death Penalty. New York: Facts on File, 1994.

Wawrose, Susan C. The Death Penalty: Seeking Justice in a Civilized Society. Millbrook Press, 2000.

Winters, Paul A., ed. The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1997.

Wolf, Robert V. Capital Punishment. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1997.

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Thompson v. Oklahoma 1988

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