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2000-01-11

Virginia Executes Juvenile Offender

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Last night, the state of Virginia carried out the world’s second execution of this century, killing a juvenile offender named Chris Thomas. [includes rush transcript]

Thomas had no final words before he was injected with a lethal dose of drugs at 9pm EST at the Greenville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia.

He was 17 years old when he was accused of killing his girlfriend’s parents, James and Kathy Wiseman. His girlfriend, Jessica Wiseman, was accused of urging Thomas to kill her parents and was convicted as a juvenile. She was released in 1997.

It was Thomas’ second execution date in six months. He came five hours from execution last June, but got a last-minute stay of execution.

Meanwhile, another young man, Steve Roach, sits on Virginia’s "death house" awaiting his execution this Thursday. He had been in the cell next door to Chris Thomas until yesterday. Roach was also 17 years old when he was convicted of killing Mary Hughes in 1993.

Four other juvenile offenders have been scheduled for execution in the U.S. in the next few weeks. The United States is now one of only six countries in the world that apply the death penalty to those under the age of 18.

This past Friday afternoon, Chris Thomas spoke by telephone with KPFA programmer and producer Dennis Bernstein. This is an excerpt of the interview.

Guests:

  • Tim Staton, from Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. He was outside the Greenville Correctional Center when Chris was executed last night.
  • Steve Schneebaum, attorney for Steve Roach, whose execution is scheduled for Thursday.

Tape:

  • Interview with Chris Thomas
  • Statement by Steve Roach, speaking from death row in Virginia.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We continue on a story that is moving from state to state, and that is the case of juvenile executions in this country. Last night, the State of Virginia carried out the world’s second execution of the century, killing a juvenile offender named Chris Thomas. Thomas had no final words before he was injected with a lethal dose of drugs at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time at the Greenville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia.

He was seventeen years old when he was accused of killing his girlfriend’s parents, James and Kathy Wiseman. His girlfriend, Jessica Wiseman, was accused of urging Thomas to kill her parents and was convicted as a juvenile. She was released in 1997. It was Thomas’s second execution date in six months. He came five hours from execution last June, but got a last-minute stay of execution while the state reviewed juvenile executions.

Meanwhile, another young man, Steve Roach, sits on Virginia’s "death house" awaiting his execution this Thursday. He’d been in the cell next door to Chris Thomas until yesterday. Roach was also seventeen years old when he was convicted of killing Mary Hughes in 1993.

Four other juvenile offenders have been scheduled for execution in the United States in the next few weeks. The US is now one of only six countries in the world that apply the death penalty to those under the age — who have committed a crime under the age of eighteen. Well, this — last night, Tim Staton was outside the Greenville Correctional Center when Chris was executed. Tim Staton is from Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Tim.

TIM STATON: Thanks. Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe the scene for us?

TIM STATON: Well, last night was a little unusual, as far as our vigils go. We, in Virginia, execute about a dozen people a year, and normally the vigils down there are small, except for about once a year when family members show up, and that happened last night. Chris’s wife, Glenda, was there. Chris’s parents were there, some aunts and uncles, friends. And it’s a whole different vigil.

To be honest, usually, if there are no family members, we’re more of an activist, anti-death penalty bent. But last night we’re more of a consoling, religious service to try to help these people through their grief. And it was very moving. Chris’s mom — we set up an altar in the field. Chris’s mom placed a toy on there, apparently one of Chris’s. Just a really moving evening and one that gives a personal face to the death penalty.

One of the arguments that’s used, and frankly one that — about the only one that ever sold me on the death penalty, was that it brings solace to the victims’ families. But when you see that a whole new family of victims’ families being created by the state, right in front of you, it really brings it home.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the aspect of Chris’s case, which is that he is — he was a juvenile when he committed the crime?

TIM STATON: Sure. We can all relate to that. We’ve all been seventeen. We all know some of the choices we made at that age. And we join a very interesting roster of countries as a country that executes juvenile offenders. And it’s — we find it disgraceful.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to actually hear Chris Thomas in just a minute, when we come back from our break. He spoke with Pacifica producer Dennis Bernstein just a few days ago, as he faced his imminent death. And then we’re also going to hear from Steve Roach, who sits on Virginia’s death row, and his date for execution is Thursday. We’ll hear from him and from his attorney. You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to the late Chris Thomas. He was executed last night by Virginia at a about 9:00. Again, he was seventeen years old when he was convicted of killing his girlfriend’s parents, James and Kathy Wiseman. His girlfriend, Jessica Wiseman, was accused of urging Thomas to kill her parents and was convicted as a juvenile. She was released in 1997. Chris Thomas was executed last night.

Well, on Friday afternoon, Chris Thomas spoke by telephone to Dennis Bernstein, producer at Pacifica station KPFA.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: Do you feel that you were too young at the time that you committed the crime to really understand what was going on?

CHRIS THOMAS: I was just a kid when I committed the crime. I mean, I still had the capacity to change, to grow, to learn, which I have.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: So what have you learned since you’ve been behind bars?

CHRIS THOMAS: Basically, you know, because of security, we’re not offered, you know, college courses. I have gotten my GED.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: I understand that you were only able to get to know your father after you were on death row. Is that true?

CHRIS THOMAS: Correct.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: What was that like? How did you get to know him again?

CHRIS THOMAS: He read in the newspaper that I’d got an execution date, and he called the prison and requested to speak with me. I called him back, and we kind of started communicating back and forth on the telephone. Then, just, you know, the past June, they — you know, when I came down to Greensville, they allowed him to come back and visit me for the first time, which was the first time I had ever seen him in my life.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: And what did that mean to you?

CHRIS THOMAS: It meant a great deal, because even though he wasn’t there in the past, he did at least try to make an effort now.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: And again, I want to ask you, what do you think has changed? Why do you feel you deserve this second chance, based on what’s happened in your life?

CHRIS THOMAS: I mean, I’ve grown up. I’m not the same gullible, impulsive-thinking kid that committed this crime.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: Chris, how did you get yourself into a circumstance that led you to such a terrible incident? What was going through your mind?

CHRIS THOMAS: Being with my co-defendant, we were so in love, and her parents were trying to keep us apart and kind of — without really going into any specifics, it’s kind of what led up to this. I think back at it and look at it now. Wherever love presented itself, I tend to cling to it, and Jessica just showed me that love that I so desperately needed and wanted, that I would have basically done anything to keep her around.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: Did you ever think that you would be sentenced to the death penalty?

CHRIS THOMAS: No.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: And what was going through your mind when you were sentenced, at that time, to death?

CHRIS THOMAS: I think my first thought was I should have testified. I should have got on the witness stand. I shouldn’t have taken the whole blame for — blame for this.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: Do you feel that you did not fire the fatal shots that led to another person’s death?

CHRIS THOMAS: It’s not a matter of feeling. I know.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: And how do you know that? What’s your best explanation? What’s your best case? How do you know?

CHRIS THOMAS: How do I know I didn’t fire the fatal shot?

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: Yes.

CHRIS THOMAS: Because I was standing in the room with her when she did it.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: What happened to your then-girlfriend?

CHRIS THOMAS: She’s since been released.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: So do you feel that you’ve been wrongfully convicted to death?

CHRIS THOMAS: Yes, because she was given seven years for the role that she participated in, essentially given juvenile life. After those seven years, she’s free to resume a normal life, while I’m four days away from paying the ultimate price for something that we equally participated in.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: You were, in fact, sentenced once before to die. What happened? And what did it feel like to come so close?

CHRIS THOMAS: I had mixed feelings. Since I’ve been on death row, I’ve been searching for one thing. And that’s finality. In June, I thought, well, finally something is going to happen. I’m either going to be given life in prison or I’m going to die. When the stay came down, I was happy for my family, because I’m still here, and that made them happy. Personally, I knew I was going back and would have to go through this whole process over again. And that was a little disappointing.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: Are you angry? How do you feel that your country, the United States of America, is one of the few remaining that’s still willing to execute child offenders?

CHRIS THOMAS: As from a personal standpoint, I can’t be angry at the US, I can’t be angry at the State of Virginia, for one simple reason: I had a decision to make. I made the wrong decision. We live in a free society, where we can, you know, pick and choose and decide on our free will. Just unfortunately, I was placed in a situation that I didn’t think through clearly, and I decided wrong. So I can’t be angry at the US. I can’t be angry at anyone but myself.

But, like, I don’t feel that the US should execute juvenile offenders, because it’s basically saying that we have no chance to be rehabilitated. I can’t see how at seventeen a court can say, well, this juvenile doesn’t have the capacity to learn and to grow and to mature.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: Are you prepared to die, if that time comes on Monday. You’re scheduled to die at 9:00. Are you prepared to die?

CHRIS THOMAS: Yes, I’m prepared. The whole process that you go through while being on death row prepares you to die, because you’re faced with death every day.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: You mean, by people around you being taken out and executed?

CHRIS THOMAS: Yeah.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: How old are you now?

CHRIS THOMAS: Twenty-six.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: And you’re prepared to die at twenty-six?

CHRIS THOMAS: If it’s God’s will that I die at twenty-six, then I’m prepared to go.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: And if they let you out right now, say there was a reprieve and, in fact, not only was your sentence commuted, but you were allowed to go free, what would you do with your life?

CHRIS THOMAS: What’s the very first thing I would do?

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: Sure, the first thing, the second thing.

CHRIS THOMAS: The very first thing would be go to a church, get down on my hands and knees, and thank God, because it would truly be a miracle. The second thing, would try to put all this behind me and try to get some normalcy back in my life, try to get a job, try to do something positive, because, granted, there’s not — you know, being a convicted felon, there’s not many things that you’re allowed to do.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: But if you were, if you could do anything you wanted, would you raise horses, would you —

CHRIS THOMAS: Join the military.

DENNIS BERNSTEIN: And why would you do that?

CHRIS THOMAS: The discipline, the adventure, the traveling, the camaraderie.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Thomas, speaking by telephone with Dennis Bernstein of Pacifica station KPFA last Friday. Last night at 9:00, Chris Thomas was executed by the State of Virginia. He was convicted of killing his girlfriend’s parents.

Tomorrow night, on Thursday night, another young man is scheduled to die in Virginia. His name is Steve Roach. On December 3rd, 1993, one of the neighbors that he used to help, a seventy-year-old woman named Mary Ann Hughes, was shot and killed with a single shotgun blast in the doorway of her home in a small rural town of Stanardsville in Greene County, Virginia. Her credit card, cash and her car was taken. Three days later, having been spotted in North and South Carolina and urged to give himself up by his aunts, Steve Roach returned to Virginia and turned himself in to the Greene County Sheriff, where he admitted shooting Mary Hughes.

We’re joined right now by Steve Roach’s attorney, who is from the law firm in Washington, D.C. of Patton Boggs. His name is Steve Schneebaum. Welcome to Democracy Now!

STEVE SCHNEEBAUM: Thank you. Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s good to be with you. You have about, oh, forty hours or so before your client is scheduled to be executed. What are you doing in these hours?

STEVE SCHNEEBAUM: We have asked Governor Gilmore to grant clemency to Steve Roach, and what we are doing now is attempting to marshal public support from people whose voices will matter to the governor in that deliberative process.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you — on what grounds are you making your appeal?

STEVE SCHNEEBAUM: Well, we are asking the governor to grant clemency in Steve Roach’s case, primarily on the grounds that if there is to be execution as a sentence for crime in the United States, and especially if there is to be juvenile execution as sentences for crimes committed in the United States, then that ultimate penalty should be reserved for the worst of the worst. It should be reserved for the worst, most egregious crimes, for the people who have proved themselves to be unredeemable in this life. And that kind of characterization applies neither to Steve Roach nor to the horrible murder that he committed.

AMY GOODMAN: Why?

STEVE SCHNEEBAUM: Because Steve Roach’s entire criminal record before December 3rd, 1993, consisted of two joyriding incidents, in which literally he took cars with the keys left in the ignition in rural Virginia and drove them for awhile and then jumped out and ran away, and one incident of burglary in an empty house, a house that was unoccupied. And that is the entirety of his criminal record before this murder. He had no record of violence against other people, no record of violent acts in school, violent acts in the community, absolutely nothing like that. And yet, the jury in Greene County found, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he was a future danger to society, based only on the one moment, the one instant in which he ended Mary Hughes’s life.

AMY GOODMAN: We actually have sound of Steve Roach. This is from a video called, Raised on the Row: Killing the Man to Punish the Youth. By the way, Steve Roach was sitting in the next cell to Chris Thomas, who was executed last night. But while it’s a little hard to understand, this is just a clip where Steve says, "The hardest part is seeing someone leave before you do."

STEVE ROACH: I mean, the hardest part is seeing someone leave before you do, knowing that they might not come back, and you have to take the same damn journey. I mean, one of the guards made a question the other day, he said, "Steve, I want to ask you something." [inaudible] You know, he said, "You seem happy all the time." He said, "And yet you’ll be executed in a couple of weeks." I told him, I said, "Listen," I said, "if I sit in here and ponder about it, I’m gonna go crazy. If I sit in here and prepare myself for it and take one day at a time, I’ll make it."

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Roach, again, the video Raised on the Row: Killing the Man to Punish Youth. We got that from Amnesty International. Steve Roach’s lawyer is Steve Schneebaum of Patton Boggs in Washington, D.C. You were talking about whether he should have been sentenced to death in this country. I think few people realize that less than 1% of murder cases actually result in someone being put on death row. Why do you think that Steve Roach was put on death row for this murder?

STEVE SCHNEEBAUM: Well, I don’t know. And, of course, I’ve often asked myself that very question, as has Steve. And I’ve talked, in fact, with the prosecutor about it, as well. I think that there was a revulsion in the community, based on who this lady was, who Mary Hughes was. She was an elderly widow. She was known to everyone in town. She was a friendly person. She was a person who would — who opened the door to her home to young people, who was frequently visited by young people, helped out by them, as she reciprocated. And so, I think the primary reason for this was that the prosecutor may have felt that he somehow owned Mary Hughes’s memory this kind of outcome.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what do you think the chances are of having this execution stayed or clemency granted?

STEVE SCHNEEBAUM: Well, you know, it’s impossible to answer that question. At least there’s only one person on earth who can answer that question to any measure of certainty, and that’s Governor Gilmore. The Governor has said, in every single clemency petition that he’s handled in his two years in the State House, that he considers each of these cases on its individual merits, he reads the petitions carefully, he reads the attachments. He is, of course, himself, a lawyer. He’s a former Attorney General of the Commonwealth. And we have every reason to believe that he does give the individual cases that kind of individualized consideration.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Virginia actually reviewed juvenile death penalty cases, the whole issue of them, recently?

STEVE SCHNEEBAUM: Well, Virginia has reviewed the whole issue of juvenile transfers, the conditions under which juveniles will be tried as adults, and certainly did not do anything to move in the direction of making it harder to put juveniles on death row.

AMY GOODMAN: Does the fact that Chris Thomas was executed last night have any bearing on your client’s case?

STEVE SCHNEEBAUM: The Governor says that it doesn’t, and we take him at his word.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you spoken to Steve Roach since he was sitting next to Chris Thomas in the "death house" just before he was executed?

STEVE SCHNEEBAUM: Yes. Yes, I did. They moved to the "death house" on Friday, and, of course, Steve Roach went onto death row back when it was in Mecklenburg, when Chris Thomas was already there, so they know each other the entire time that Steve was on the row, and they were, for most of that time, the two youngest people on the row, so they particularly closely bonded. And I talked with him about the trip to Jarratt, the "death house," and also about his feelings as he was sitting in his cell yesterday, right next door to Chris’s parents’ tearful scenes of goodbye to him.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have a number for the Virginia Governor Gilmore?

STEVE SCHNEEBAUM: I do, I do. Governor Gilmore’s office is — telephone number is (804) 786-2211. And could I add that, in approaching the Governor, my view is that it is particularly important that appeals for Steve Roach’s clemency be appeals for Steve Roach, not appeals against the death penalty in general or even the juvenile death penalty in particular. We know the Governor’s feelings about that. We are free to disagree with him, of course. I strongly disagree with him.

AMY GOODMAN: We have ten seconds.

STEVE SCHNEEBAUM: But appeals should be focused on Steve Roach, the person.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us, Steve Schneebaum, attorney for Steve Roach, scheduled to be executed in Virginia on Thursday night. The phone number of Governor Gilmore again is (804) 786-2211.

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