"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Sometimes the solemnity of a courtroom belies what happens there. Even when a possible death sentence overshadows a trial, the apparent rectitude of the proceedings may be but a thin veneer.
In such instances, when all other legal remedies have failed, a petitioner's last hope rests in an appeal to the governor — provided he can first persuade the state's Board of Pardons and Parole.
Last spring, in a close and highly unusual vote, that board recommended clemency for Anthony Thrash, a man who was sentenced to life without parole in 1985, and who has already served 23 years in prison on his conviction for capital murder.
If Thrash had not escaped in 1996, and remained free long enough to begin uncovering some of the undisclosed dealings that influenced his conviction, he might never have been able to convince the board that he was wronged. But Thrash did escape, and now the parole board's vice chairman, Abraham Carpenter Jr., says, “I believe there was an injustice at his trial. If all of the truth had been told then, as it has now, I don't think he would ever have been convicted.”
Carpenter was one of four board members who voted to recommend clemency for Thrash. “I didn't want the continued incarceration of an innocent man on my conscience,” he said.
Thrash was tried in 1985 for the shotgun slaying of Garland Bruce “Tommy” Gill, a 23-year-old welder from Dumas, who had a wife and a 3-year-old child. The prosecuting attorney at the time was Sam Pope, who's now a circuit judge.
At Thrash's trial, Pope told the jury that murders seldom get more “cold-bloodeder” than the one they'd been asked to consider. Pope urged them to sentence Thrash to death. The jury found Thrash guilty, but balked on the ultimate sanction. It instead sentenced him to life without parole.
In the past few years, however, one of those jurors has come forward to say that if he had known in 1985 some of the information Thrash has managed to uncover, he would not have voted to convict Thrash at all.
Juror Willie Hampton told the board that he believes Pope misrepresented crucial information about the credibility of the only witness who linked Thrash to Gill's murder. Hampton swore in an affidavit, he “was not given the truth as a juror.”
As a result, Hampton wrote, Thrash's trial “was not a fair trial or a just one.” He urged the board to recommend clemency.
Thrash remained free for six months before he was recaptured in early 1997. In the 11 years since then, he has submitted new information about his trial through appeals to the Arkansas Supreme Court, the U.S. District Court, and the U.S. Supreme Court. All those appeals were denied.
How, then, did anyone on the parole board, let alone a slight majority, conclude, as Carpenter put it, that, “Clearly, something went wrong at that trial”? What did the board see that the courts had not — or had not been willing to consider?
Tommy Gill's disappearance
On July 6, 1980, Tommy Gill was supposed to pick up his wife, Nancy, at the doctor's office in Dumas, where she worked. It was a Friday night, one of the nights that Nancy Gill assisted at the clinic's weight-loss class. Gill never showed up.
When he had not returned home by the next morning, Nancy reported her husband missing. She says sheriff's and State Police officers gave her the brush-off. “They thought we were just young kids,” she says. “They told me, ‘He'll be back tomorrow.' ”
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