Sunday, April 12, 2009

Killer's mental acumen at issue


After 31 years on Death Row, William Lee Thompson gets another chance to do what Sally Ivester never could: live out his golden years.
Lawyers will argue Monday in a Miami courtroom whether Thompson, 57, is mentally retarded -- a determination that would save him from execution for the 1976 rape, torture and murder of Ivester inside a North Dade motel.

The Florida Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision in February, ordered a Miami-Dade court to allow Thompson a hearing to present his case, despite prosecutors' contentions that his IQ is above the legal standard for mental retardation.

Thompson and another man raped Ivester, 23, with a chair leg, burned her flesh with cigarettes and whipped her for hours with a chain-link belt.

Then, Dade's top prosecutor called Ivester's slaying ''the most brutal torture-murder'' he had ever seen. During a graphic trial, one juror fainted.

Over the years, Thompson has skirted death several times: Two death warrants were stayed by the courts, and he survived a homemade-knife wound to the stomach in a failed suicide bid.

''There was never anything to indicate any mental infirmity,'' remembered former prosecutor George T. Yoss, who tried the case in 1976. ``They were just mean, vicious, nasty people. I still remember those autopsy pictures -- you can't forget them.''

Ivester's torture happened at the Sunny Isles Motel, 16375 Biscayne Blvd., in March 1976.

Thompson, then 23, was a listless former short-order cook, carnival worker, prostitute and soldier. He checked into the motel with motorcycle gang leader Rocco James Surace, 30. With them were two girlfriends: Ivester, of Georgia, and Barbara Savage, 19.

At their urging, Ivester had asked her mother for money. She produced only $25. For two days, the men exploded in an orgy of rage, stopped only briefly when they hauled Ivester to a phone booth and forced her to call her mother for more money.

They also forced Ivester to lick spilled beer off the floor. Her chest bore deep imprints of the chain. She died of internal bleeding.

In a rare move, Dade State Attorney Richard Gerstein tried the case himself, along with Yoss. Back then, justice was swifter -- the trial started within three months.

During Yoss' graphic opening statement, one juror sobbed, then fainted. She was excused.

After the men pleaded guilty mid-trial, a judge sentenced them to death. But the state's high court tossed out the convictions because the men believed the judge had agreed to spare their lives.

Jurors later found Surace guilty of second-degree murder. Sentence: life in prison, where he died in 1993.

In 1978, Thompson again pleaded guilty -- and again received death. He has spent the ensuing decades filing appeal after appeal.

Over the years, testimony was given about his mental capacity but never in a hearing solely to determine whether he was retarded.

The Florida Supreme Court in 1987 tossed his death sentence because penalty-phase jurors thought they could not consider his low IQ and history of abuse as a child when recommending death.

A 1989 resentencing brought the same result: the death penalty.

At that proceeding, according to defense lawyer Terri L. Backhus' appeal, a prosecutor acknowledged Thompson's mental status to jurors by calling him a ``retarded bump on a log.''

His latest appeal came after a landmark 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed execution of the mentally retarded. Their diminished ability to understand why they faced an executioner, justices ruled, was cruel and unusual punishment -- especially as more states barred such executions.

States were left to mold their own criteria for retardation -- and Florida's is hotly debated.

Thompson's prosecutors maintained that the state Supreme Court mandates a cutoff -- IQs below 70 -- and two of Thompson's childhood IQ tests scored out at 74 and 75.

In their February decision, four state Supreme Court justices, while not deciding on Thompson's claim, said he deserved a full evidentiary hearing on the retardation issue. Three justices dissented.

Backhus did not return calls for comment. She wrote in her appeal that at least one IQ test pegged Thompson's IQ at 70; prosecutors said that test was not valid.

She also pointed out that Thompson was found mildly retarded in the second grade and was later placed in a special-education class.

''He was tall, lanky and uncoordinated and didn't make friends,'' Backhus wrote. ``He was clumsy and unpopular. He was so needy for attention that he volunteered to bring Christmas trees for all the classes at school.''

On Monday, Backhus and Assistant State Attorney Abbe Rifkin will present their respective experts on mental retardation in front of Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jacqueline Hogan Scola.

''Nothing that I have reviewed,'' Rifkin said, ``indicates he is retarded and did not know exactly what was doing when he killed this poor girl.''

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