A federal appeals court judge says a man executed in California in 1998 was “likely innocent” of the rape and murder for which he was sentenced to death. In an article in the Michigan Law Review, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt said Thomas Thompson, one of 13 Californians executed since 1992 under the current death penalty law, was put to death only because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prevented a lower court from considering the merits of his case.
Thompson was convicted of the 1981 rape and murder of 20-year-old Ginger Fleischli. Thompson’s roommate David Leitch was convicted of second-degree murder in connection to the crime. The prosecutor gave conflicting versions of events at each trial, saying during Thompson’s trial that Thompson was alone with the victim, and at Leitch’s saying Leitch was present and ordered Thompson to kill her.
During Leitch’s parole hearing in 1995, Leitch testified to witnessing Thompson and Fleischli engaging in consensual sex on the night of her murder, testimony that Thompson’s jury never heard. According to the San Francisco Gate, in light of this detail, the jury may have cleared Thompson, since rape was alleged to be the motive for Fleischli’s murder. Thompson’s jury was also not aware that two witnesses were regular jailhouse informants with questionable records.
Because of the conflicting prosecutions and unreliable witnesses, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Thompson’s death sentence in 1997. The Supreme Court overturned the ruling in April 1998. Thompson was executed three months later.
Orange County prosecutors insist Thompson was properly tried and sentenced.
Read the San Francisco Gate article here.