Thompson v. Oklahoma

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Thompson v. Oklahoma
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued November 9, 1987
Decided June 29, 1988
Full case nameWilliam Wayne Thompson v. State of Oklahoma
Citations487 U.S. 815 ( more )
108 S. Ct. 2687; 101 L. Ed. 2d 702; 1988 U.S. LEXIS 3028; 56 U.S.L.W. 4892
Case history
PriorDefendant tried as an adult and convicted of murder of his brother-in-law, who had been abusing his ex-wife, who was Thompson's sister; was found guilty; and was sentenced to death. Appealed to Court of Criminal Appeals of Oklahoma, decision affirmed, 1986 OK CR 130, 724 P.2d 780. Appealed to U.S. Supreme Court, granted writ of certiorari , 479 U.S. 1084(1987).
The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 16 when their crimes were committed.
Court membership
Chief Justice
William Rehnquist
Associate Justices
William J. Brennan Jr.  · Byron White
Thurgood Marshall  · Harry Blackmun
John P. Stevens  · Sandra Day O'Connor
Antonin Scalia  · Anthony Kennedy
Case opinions
PluralityStevens, joined by Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun
DissentScalia, joined by Rehnquist, White
Kennedy took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amends. VIII, XIV

Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815 (1988), was the first case since the moratorium on capital punishment was lifted in the United States in which the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of a minor on grounds of "cruel and unusual punishment." [1] The holding in Thompson was expanded on by Roper v. Simmons (2005), where the Supreme Court extended the "evolving standards" rationale to those under 18 years old. [2]



William Wayne Thompson was a 15-year-old repeat offender from Grady County, Oklahoma. His sister, Vicki, was married to Charles Keene, who was accused of beating Vicki and William. William and three other men (Tony Mann, Richard Jones and Bobby Glass) then kidnapped Charles on the night of January 23, 1983 in Amber, Oklahoma. Charles attempted to escape, running to neighbor John "Possum" Brown's door. He reportedly knocked on the door and screamed, "Possum, open the door, they're going to kill me". Brown opened the door, only to see four men dragging Keene from the door and beating him. When Brown called the police, the assailants grabbed Keene and fled.

Keene's body was found later in the nearby river, his body split throat to abdomen. He had multiple bruises and two gunshot wounds, along with a concrete block tied to his legs. William was arrested after Vicki confessed to the police that William said that "he had taken care of him." The three other assailants were convicted of murder and sentenced to death; Richard Jones later had his sentence repealed. Bobby Glass was murdered in prison. After Thompson was arrested he underwent psychiatric evaluation to determine whether he was eligible to stand trial as an adult. He was found responsible for his deeds and convicted by the District Court of Grady County in Chickasha, Oklahoma. He was sentenced to death by the jury.


Thompson's attorneys first attempted to appeal the case on the basis of inflammatory photographs used by the prosecution to allegedly provoke the jury. Although the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals found that two of the photographs should have been excluded from the trial, the overwhelming evidence meant that the case was affirmed by the appellate court. [3]

Due to Thompson's rapidly approaching execution, his attorneys subsequently filed his case with the Supreme Court, saying that the execution of a juvenile was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment's "Cruel and Unusual Punishment" clause.

Opinion of the Court

The Court voted 5-3 in favor of Thompson (Justice Kennedy did not participate), holding that Thompson's execution would violate the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution as applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. A plurality opinion by Justice Stevens noted the "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society" as a primary rationale for the decision [4] - an opinion that was strongly rejected in Justice Scalia"s dissent. The plurality also noted that numerous U.S. jurisdictions and all industrialized Western nations had banned the execution of minors under 16 years of age. [5]


Thompson was later resentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. As of 2015, William Wayne Thompson and Tony Mann are still incarcerated. Thompson was granted parole in 2003, but that was later overturned by the governor. His sister Vicki is currently campaigning to parole her brother.

See also

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  1. Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815 (1988).
  2. Roper v. Simmons , 543 U.S. 551 (2005).
  3. Thompson v. State, 1986 OK CR 130, 724 P.2d 780.
  4. Thompson, 487 U.S. at 821.
  5. Thompson, 487 U.S. at 830-31.