I stumbled upon this article in the Shelbyville Times Gazette by Clint Confehr from Nov. 21 when I returned to the office from the Thanksgiving holiday. I am still trying to figure it out.
He begins the article by following the sisters of two victims in two cases. One sister, Tammy Ross, whose brother was murdered, is grateful that her brother’s killer (his wife) pleaded guilty and will spend the rest of her life in prison. Tammy Ross didn’t want the death penalty because she wants her sister-in-law to live with what she has done. The other sister, Barbara Brown whose sister Brenda Lane was murdered by Gregory Thompson, has decided over the years that she would like to witness his execution. The article then goes on to discuss Daryl Holton, making assumptions as to why Holton chose the electric chair and posing some questions for consideration by readers.
Several things struck me, a few of which I will mention here: Confehr says that “revenge versus closure is this tale of two sisters.” One sister wants the killer to remain in prison while the other wants the death penalty. From what I can tell, he equates the one sister’s desire for life in prison with revenge while equating the death penalty with closure. I would argue that those equations are faulty and should be reversed.
What will be different for Barbara Brown the day after Thompson is executed? She will have witnessed the execution of a very mentally ill man who murdered her sister over 20 years ago, a sister who by her own account was probably praying for Thompson at the time of the murder. So, killing him would honor her memory? Sadly, because of the death penalty system, she has waited 23 years for the promise of “closure” via the death penalty, when all the while Thompson has been locked up and would remain so. I would argue that Tammy Ross, the sister in the first scenario, will begin to move on, not waiting years for a sentence to be carried out that will change nothing. In prison, perhaps Kimberly Ross, the killer of Tammy Ross’ brother, can come to terms with what she did and finally express some remorse for her despicable actions. The death penalty cuts off such a possibility.
And, as far as Greg Thompson goes. Mr. Confehr states, “Apparently, he wasn’t insane when he killed Brenda Lane.” Just because a court does not find a person to be insane certainly doesn’t mean that they are not. An insanity defense rarely prevails in Tennessee even when mental health experts testify to the person’s illness. In fact, in the last decade, no insanity defense has prevailed in a Tennessee courtroom. As far as Thompson is concerned, he has a 4000 plus page file of severe mental illness history since his time in prison, and what Mr. Confehr does not mention is that prior to the murder of Brenda Lane, Thompson was experiencing symptoms of mental illness, so much so that his family tried to get him treatment but could not afford it. The truth is that the general public still does not understand mental illness and its affect on people’s grasp of reality. Of the four people that Tennessee has executed in the modern era, three had some form of mental illness.
These tragic murders and the effect on family members is devastating. I hope and pray that both Tammy Ross and Barbara Brown can find some healing and peace. But, I also continue to hope and pray that someday, as a society, we will own what the death penalty really is: not closure but revenge. I hope and pray that we will stop spending millions of dollars to kill people for killing people and instead spend the money to prevent crimes from occurring in the first place. If three of four people who have been executed in Tennessee were mentally ill, might lives have been saved if we had spent money to reach them before these tragedies occurred?
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