Using Real Cases in Legal Psychology Courses: Our Pen Pal, the Death Row Inmate

The following article by Dr. Edie Greene and Andrew Evalo appeared in the Summer 2010 (PDF, 393KB) edition of the AP-LS newsletter.

On March 9, 2009, National Public Radio aired a story about a Florida death row inmate’s petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. William Lee Thompson claimed that trial and appellate errors prolonged his case for so many years—he has been on Florida’s death row for 33 years—that his execution would be unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

This story formed the basis for a series of readings, discussions, writing assignments, and “appellate court” arguments in a graduate seminar in psychology and law taught by the first author and taken by the second author. It also launched a correspondence between class members and Mr. Thompson that provided learning opportunities and insights far beyond anything students could garner from reading and discussing scholarly articles and legal opinions. In this column, one of us (EG) details the various ways that Thompson’s case was woven into the graduate seminar and the other (AE) describes what he and other students gleaned from the opportunity to correspond with a death row inmate.

The Professor’s Perspective (EG)

William Lee Thompson had committed a vicious crime whose facts were “too gruesome to be retold on the air.” In brief, he and a biker friend named Rocky Surace kidnapped and tortured a young woman to death in a motel room in March, 1976 after the woman tried and failed to get money from her mother to purchase drugs. An eyewitness to the murder asserted that Surace was the real perpetrator and that Thompson was merely a follower.

On hearing this story, I was immediately intrigued by its details. After I read some news articles (e.g., Fathi, 2009; Ovalle, 2009), the lower court opinions (e.g., Thompson v. State, 1977; Thompson v. Dugger, 1987), and the written denial of certiorari (Thompson v. McNeil, 2009), I also realized that Thompson’s case was rife with interesting psycholegal issues. He is borderline retarded with an IQ in the mid-70s. He apparently suffered brain damage as a child. There is evidence of a dysfunctional family life. He voluntarily pled guilty after being assured that his guilty plea would remove all possibility of a death sentence. Nonetheless, he was twice sentenced to death by a jury vote of 7-5 in Florida, the only state in the nation that allows a non-unanimous decision in capital cases. His co-defendant was sentenced to life imprisonment (and has since died). Twice Thompson’s death sentence was set aside by state appellate courts because the trial judge had not allowed mitigating evidence to be heard by the jury. And Thompson has spent the past 33 years by himself in a 6 X 9 foot cell for up to 23 hours a day.

I knew that there was a reasonable body of scholarly research on many of these topics and decided to structure a portion of the course around reading and debating these issues. I have previously written about an advocacy exercise in an advanced undergraduate seminar in psychology and law in which students read, write about, and present, in the context of a mock appellate court, the best available psychological data in support of one party in a legal case (Greene, 2008). I modeled these assignments on that exercise.

In class, we began by listening to the NPR story. Students then read several news articles and lower court opinions in the case, as well as the Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari that included a dissenting opinion from Justice Breyer, and concurring opinions from Justice Thomas and Justice Stevens who, despite concurring in the denial, wrote that “delays in state-sponsored killings are inescapable and that executing defendants after such delays is unacceptably cruel.” Because many students had no background in psychology and law (they are enrolled in a general experimental graduate program; only a few are in the psychology and law concentration), this assignment was preceded by some in-class instruction on reading cases.

Approximately two weeks into the semester, assuming that students were now familiar with some of the issues in the Thompson case, I presented paper topic options (including the effects of mental retardation and brain damage on culpability, the impact of gruesome photographs and mitigating evidence on juror and jury decision making, the psychological effects of long term confinement, the relationship between familial dysfunction and criminality, and the consequences of unanimous and majority decision rules in jury deliberations) and by lottery, students chose one about which to write. Their assignment was to review the relevant psychological literature, take a position on the basis of the review that supported either the petitioner or the respondent in Thompson’s appeals, and prepare a written analysis that could be used in an appellate court hearing. I reminded students that they were involved in an adversarial process and must strongly support either Thompson or the state. (As it turned out, all of them opted to write on behalf of Thompson.) In essence, the assignment was to write an amicus curiae brief; as foundation, we read and discussed a few APA amicus briefs on unrelated topics.

At this point in the course, students were intrigued by the very real facts of this case and went looking for more information online. One (AE) found a link to Mr. Thompson’s case on the website of the Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty (www.ccadp.org) that included pictures of Thompson, and his written pleas for legal assistance and for funds to assist in filing motions. It also included a pen pal request and an address. It was AE’s idea to begin corresponding with Mr. Thompson. He describes that experience below. During the last two weeks of the course, students presented oral arguments based on their written analyses in front of a three-justice panel (as in actual appellate courts) constituted by myself and two other students. We questioned presenters about the basis for their findings and the validity of their conclusions. As in appellate courts, students had exactly 30 minutes to present their arguments.

These assignments required students to locate, synthesize, and condense a fairly large body of empirical research into a concise and organized written analysis and to present that analysis in an adversarial context, thinking “on their feet,” and modifying their presentations as the situations required. Most students prepared slides to accompany their presentations and made compelling and engaging arguments, even as I and my fellow “justices” interrupted and occasionally badgered them.

Mr. Thompson was aware that students were writing about his case and asked to see their papers, hoping he could “use them in a hearing.” For multiple reasons—including the fact that they could be used for purposes other than those intended—I declined to send them, and explained why.

The Student's Perspective (AE)

I never considered myself much of a bleeding heart, but when I found William Thompson’s almost desperate plea for a pen pal, I was moved. Sending Thompson a letter seemed like a decent thing to do. It would also be interesting and enlightening to correspond with someone on death row.

When I shared my idea with the class, I was surprised by how enthusiastic other students were. Writing became an all-class activity. After sending off our first letter, we wondered if we would hear back from Thompson before the end of the semester, if ever, and were surprised by his prompt reply. So began the meaningful discourse we had throughout the rest of the semester.

 Writing letters as a class was an interesting challenge. During class time we shared ideas about what to say and how to say it. Most of our questions involved events in his case, relevant psychological topics, and his day-to-day life on death row. We also asked about things that could help us write our “briefs”, such as evidence to support his claims of mental retardation and brain damage.

 Even more challenging than content issues were choices about the most appropriate language to use, especially regarding the actual crime. We wanted to be respectful yet struggled with (and sometimes argued about) how to politely inquire about the actions and thoughts that led Thompson to commit a brutal murder. Thompson was more than forthright in his responses, however. He attempted to answer our questions, and asked some of his own. He was open about the past and gave us the information we needed to write our “briefs”. He wrote a lot about his life on “the row,” opinions on his many hearings, and feelings of general dislike for the Florida Department of Corrections. He freely shared some of his thoughts on the crime and expressed feelings of remorse.

For me, the most interesting part of the experience was coming to know this person through letters. It was clear that Thompson did not have the conversational style of an adult. In some respects, his language was very childlike. He included doodles of faces whose expressions mirrored the emotions he was writing about. He even looked childlike in the picture he sent: dressed in an orange jumpsuit, standing in front of a broadly painted wall mural, grinning broadly. There was a sense of naiveté in his writing style, and his certitude that he would not only be moved to the general prison population, but that one day he would be released and live out his later years as a free man. I wonder whether these are genuine beliefs or coping mechanisms one develops to manage life on death row.

Overall, I learned a lot from reading about and writing to William Thompson. The discussions spurred by his letters were some of the best (and most intense) I have had in my educational career. They also provided a genuine context for our semester long writing project. Because of our contacts with Thompson, we were able to apply psychological research to a real case.

The hardest part about this project was bringing it to a close. When I suggested writing to Thompson, he was, in my mind, a convicted murderer whose case raised interesting psycho-legal issues. By the end of the semester, I realized that he was also a very lonely person who, facing his own mortality, had become equally interested in us and desired to continue the correspondence. Students in the class were split on what to do. While some of my classmates wanted to continue (and they still might) we decided collectively that the end of the semester was an appropriate stopping point. We communicated that to Thompson but also wanted to thank him for his time and effort. He had mentioned that he liked to read fantasy books but that the state had cited his trips to the library as evidence that he was not mentally retarded, so he stopped. Therefore, we all chipped in and with our last letter, sent him a gift of some books: a dictionary, a thesaurus (as he requested) and the Harry Potter series.

Concluding Thoughts (EG)

This was a challenging and invigorating experience for me. Despite my strong beliefs against the death penalty, I wanted students to reach their own conclusions about the appropriateness of that punishment in this particular case and perhaps in others, as well. In discussions of that issue, I walked a fine line: appearing to be impartial and playing devil’s advocate to their stated anti-death penalty opinions when, in fact, my own sentiments were just below the surface.

We talked at some length about the conditions of Thompson’s confinement on death row and about whether his punishment— across more than 30 years—was proportionate to the severity of his crime. We talked about our impressions of Thompson as a boyish and naïve 50-something who was clearly appreciative of our interest in him and who had a surprisingly rosy outlook on his chances for release from death row. He was hard not to like. So I reminded students, on occasion, that he had also committed a repugnant, vicious, and ultimately murderous act. Where, we pondered together, was his humanity—then, and now—and how do we, individually and collectively, balance our concerns about his humanity and his palpable humanness with the cold, hard facts of his crime?

Looking at this experience more dispassionately, I think that it provided a good opportunity for students to see the real-world application of our theories and findings and successfully addressed a number of complementary learning objectives. Students became somewhat adroit at reading case law, they had the uncommon experience of becoming psychological advocates for a real party to a legal case and articulating their positions “in court,” and they did so in the context of meaningful circumstances. I thank William Thompson for his willingness to engage with us.

References

Fathi, D. (2009, March 16). 32 years on death rowHuman Rights Watch.

Greene, E. (2008). An advocacy exercise for a psychology and law course. Teaching of Psychology35, 210-213.

Ovalle, D. (2009, April 14). Retardation may spare life of imprisoned killer in 33-year-old Miami casePalm Beach Post.

Thompson v. Dugger, 515 So. 2d 173 (1987).

Thompson v. McNeil, 77 U.S.L.W. 3505 (2009).

Thompson v. State, 389 So. 2d 197 (1980).