Thompson v. Oklahoma

Last updated
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. Appealed to U.S. Supreme Court, granted writ of certiorari.
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." 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.

Capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, is a government-sanctioned practice whereby a person is killed by the state as a punishment for a crime. The sentence that someone be punished in such a manner is referred to as a death sentence, whereas the act of carrying out the sentence is known as an execution. Crimes that are punishable by death are known as capital crimes, capital offences or capital felonies, and they commonly include serious offences such as murder, mass murder, aggravated cases of rape, child rape, child sexual abuse, terrorism, treason, espionage, offences against the State, such as attempting to overthrow government, piracy, aircraft hijacking, drug trafficking and drug dealing, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, and in some cases, the most serious acts of recidivism, aggravated robbery, and kidnapping, but may include a wide range of offences depending on a country. Etymologically, the term capital in this context alluded to execution by beheading.

United States Federal republic in North America

The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States or America, is a country comprising 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million square miles, the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe. With a population of over 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. The capital is Washington, D.C., and the most populous city is New York City. Most of the country is located contiguously in North America between Canada and Mexico.

Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), was a landmark decision in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that it is unconstitutional to impose capital punishment for crimes committed while under the age of 18. The 5–4 decision overruled Stanford v. Kentucky, in which the court had upheld execution of offenders at or above age 16, and overturned statutes in 25 states.



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.

Recidivism person repeating an undesirable behavior following punishment

Recidivism is the act of a person repeating an undesirable behavior after they have either experienced negative consequences of that behavior, or have been trained to extinguish that behavior. It is also used to refer to the percentage of former prisoners who are rearrested for a similar offense.

Grady County, Oklahoma U.S. county in Oklahoma

Grady County is a county located in the U.S. state of Oklahoma. As of the 2010 census, the population was 52,431. Its county seat is Chickasha. It was named for Henry W. Grady, an editor of the Atlanta Constitution and southern orator.

Amber, Oklahoma Town in Oklahoma, United States

Amber is a town in Grady County, Oklahoma, United States. The population was 419 at the 2010 census.

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.

Chickasha, Oklahoma City in Oklahoma, United States

Chickasha is a city in and the county seat of Grady County, Oklahoma, United States. The population was 16,036 at the 2010 census. Chickasha is home to the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. The city is named for and strongly connected to Native American heritage, as "Chickasha" (Chikashsha) is the Choctaw word for Chickasaw.


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.

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 - 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.

Anthony Kennedy American judge

Anthony McLeod Kennedy is an American lawyer and jurist who served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1988 until his retirement in 2018. He was nominated to the court in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan, and sworn in on February 18, 1988. After the retirement of Sandra Day O'Connor in 2006, he was the swing vote on many of the Roberts Court's 5–4 decisions.

Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment and excessive bail

The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits the federal government from imposing excessive bail, excessive fines, or cruel and unusual punishments. This amendment was adopted on December 15, 1791, along with the rest of the United States Bill of Rights. The phrases in this amendment originated in the English Bill of Rights of 1689.

Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution Amendment which grants citizenship to everyone born in the US and subject to its jurisdiction and protects civil and political liberties

The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted on July 9, 1868, as one of the Reconstruction Amendments. Arguably one of the most consequential amendments to this day, the amendment addresses citizenship rights and equal protection of the laws and was proposed in response to issues related to former slaves following the American Civil War. The amendment was bitterly contested, particularly by the states of the defeated Confederacy, which were forced to ratify it in order to regain representation in Congress. The amendment, particularly its first section, is one of the most litigated parts of the Constitution, forming the basis for landmark decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954) regarding racial segregation, Roe v. Wade (1973) regarding abortion, Bush v. Gore (2000) regarding the 2000 presidential election, and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) regarding same-sex marriage. The amendment limits the actions of all state and local officials, including those acting on behalf of such an official.


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

Capital punishment for juveniles in the United States existed until March 1, 2005, when the U.S. Supreme Court banned it in Roper v. Simmons.

Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361 (1989), was a United States Supreme Court case that sanctioned the imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were at least 16 years of age at the time of the crime. This decision came one year after Thompson v. Oklahoma, in which the Court had held that a 15-year-old offender could not be executed because to do so would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. In 2003, the Governor of Kentucky Paul E. Patton commuted the death sentence of Kevin Stanford, an action followed by the Supreme Court two years later in Roper v. Simmons overruling Stanford and holding that all juvenile offenders are exempt from the death penalty.

Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), is a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 6-3 that executing people with intellectual disabilities violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments, but states can define who has intellectual disability. Twelve years later in Hall v. Florida the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the discretion under which U.S. states can designate an individual convicted of murder as too intellectually incapacitated to be executed.

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Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), was a criminal case in which the United States Supreme Court struck down all death penalty schemes in the United States in a 5–4 decision, with each member of the majority writing a separate opinion. Following Furman, in order to reinstate the death penalty, states had to at least remove arbitrary and discriminatory effects, to satisfy the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Capital punishment in the United States Legal penalty in the United States

Capital punishment is a legal penalty in the United States, currently used by 29 states, the federal government, and the military. Its existence can be traced to the beginning of the American colonies. The United States is the only developed Western nation that applies the death penalty regularly. It is one of 54 countries worldwide applying it, and was the first to develop lethal injection as a method of execution, which has since been adopted by five other countries. The Philippines has since abolished executions, and Guatemala has done so for civil offenses, leaving the United States as one of four countries to still use this method.

The People of the State of California v. Robert Page Anderson, 493 P.2d 880, 6 Cal. 3d 628, was a landmark case in the state of California that outlawed the use of capital punishment. It was subsequently superseded by a state constitutional amendment, called Proposition 17.

Oregon v. Guzek, 546 U.S. 517 (2006), was a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States, which ruled that the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution does not grant criminal defendants facing the death penalty the right to introduce new evidence of their innocence during sentencing that was not introduced during trial. Accordingly, states could constitutionally exclude such evidence from the sentencing phase of a capital trial.

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