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Thompson v. Oklahoma: Case Analysis

  1. Historical Time Period:
  2. Historical Events occurring during period of case.

      The following historical events transpired during this period:

  1. The Canada–United States Free Trade Agreement (CUSFTA) was finalized. It was signed in 1988 and came into effect on January 1, 1989.
  2. Hurricane Gilbert is the strongest recorded hurricane in the Western Hemisphere (Spiritus Temporis web site, 1988).

  3. Opening ceremony of the Games of the XXIV Olympiad in Seoul, South Korea (Spiritus Temporis web site, 1988).
  4. NASA resumes space shuttle flights, grounded after the Challenger disaster (Spiritus Temporis web site, 1988).

II Background of case:

  1. What crime or event occurred?

      The crime that was committed was (premeditated) first degree murder. Petitioner Thompson brutally murdered his former brother-in-law (Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815).

  1. Who are the people involved?

      The petitioner, William Wayne Thompson was the accused who was charged with first degree murder and was at the age of 15 at the time of the commission of the offense while Charles Keene, the victim was a former brother in law of Thompson.

Keene was married to Thompson’s sister, Vicki. The case also mentioned that Thompson was with three other companions when Keene was brutally murdered and was witnessed by Malcolm “Possum” Brown.

  1. What is their history?

      It appears that Thompson bore a grudge against his former brother in law because his sister was being beaten by the former husband. This is strengthened by the fact that he was overheard in saying, “he killed him and that Charles was dead and Vicki didn’t have to worry about him anymore” (Thompson v.

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Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815).

  1. What events happened that led to original case?

      In the evening of January 22, 1983, Thompson explained to his girlfriend that he would kill Keene partly because of the physical abuse he inflicted on his (Thompson’s) sister, former wife of the victim. In the early morning of January 23, 1983, Possum overheard a commotion and a knock on his door. He called the police while Thompson and his three companions beat and kicked Keene.

When Possum got to the door, the men brought Keene away from the scene. Later on it was established that Thompson shot Keene on the head twice and slit his throat, abdomen and chest so that the fish could eat the body which was thrown in the Washita River. The body of Keene was recovered on February 18, 1983. The Chief Medical Examiner confirmed with his findings the two bullet wounds in the head and the cuts in the abdomen, chest and throat. Criminal information and a warrant of arrest had been issued on February 18, 1983. The trial began on February 22, 1983 (Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815).

  1. How was the case tried in the lower court system?

      Thompson was certified and tried as an adult under the Oklahoma Statute, Title 10, Sections 1101 and 1104.2. Under the law, a person who is less than 18 years of age is considered as a child except in cases where he is 16 or 17 and he is being prosecuted and tried for murder or other crimes specified in the law.

Moreover, under Title 10, Section 1112 (b) the State is authorized to prosecute juveniles and try them as adults provided that the State certifies to the facts that a) there is a “prosecutive merit” in the case and b) that it certifies that there chances for rehabilitating the child in the juvenile system is nil. This was done by the prosecution and therefore, trial proceeded against Thompson, certified and tried as an adult (Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815).

  1. What courts were used?

      The following courts took cognizance of the case, to wit: District Court of Grady County or the trial court; the decision of conviction was appealed to Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals then appealed again to the U.S. Supreme Court by virtue of a petition for certiorari (Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815).

  1. How was it appealed?

      The regular appeal was filed before the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals under Rule 1.2A of the Oklahoma Rules of the Court of Criminal Appeals. This appeal is a matter of right (OKCCA web site, n.d.). Thereafter, the decision as affirmed by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals was appealed by writ of certiorari before the U.S. Supreme Court pursuant to Part III J, Rule 10 of the Rules of the Supreme Court of the United States. This type of appeal is a matter of judicial discretion and is allowed only when there are compelling reasons (U.S. Supreme Court web site, n.d.)

III. Constitutional Issues:

  1. What constitutional issues or Amendments are being tried?

      The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution are being tried. The Eight Amendment is also known as Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment is known as the Due Process and Equal Protection Clause or Due Process Clause (U.S. Constitution web site, n.d.).

  1. Select portions of the Constitution that the Supreme Court will be deciding on.

“Amendment VIII: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted” (Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute web site, n.d.). “Amendment XIV: x x x nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” (Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute web site, n.d.).

  1. Rationale for Supreme Court’s Decision:
  2. What questions did the justices consider?

      The following issues were considered by the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court:

  1. a) “Whether a sentence of death is cruel and unusual punishment for a crime for a crime committed by a 15-year-old child;” and
  2. b) “Whether photographic evidence that a state court deems erroneously admitted but harmless at the guilt phase nevertheless violates a capital defendant’s constitutional rights by virtue of its being considered” (Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815).
  3. How did they rule on those questions and/ or the issues?

      Anent the issue of cruel and unusual punishment, the Supreme Court ruled that the authors of the Constitutional Amendment did not define the parameters and guidelines of what constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Instead they left it to the future judges to develop and “evolve standards of decency that mark a progress of a maturing society” (Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815).

      The Court reviewed the enactments and statutes and found out that a young person under the age of 16 cannot be held accountable and culpable as he cannot appreciate the consequences of his acts the way adults do. The Court analyzed and cited laws and instances where a young person or minor is not allowed to perform certain acts as required by statutes such as “not being qualified to vote, to marry without the parental consent, purchase liquor or cigarettes” (Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815). This only strengthens the proposition that there exists substantial difference between an adult and a young person as such a young person therefore cannot be held to suffer capital punishment.

Other than a certification requirement of the law, there is nothing in the laws that perceive a person below the age of 16 years as an adult and therefore should be accorded the treatment for a child. Based on the review of the number of states that imposed a minimum age in the death penalty laws, all of them have “fixed the age as 16 at the time of the commission of the offense” (Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815). Moreover, it violates standards of decency to impose the death penalty to a person under the age of 16 as in fact, it is even considered a mitigating circumstance in capital cases. The Court remanded the case for the imposition of life sentence instead of the imposition of death penalty/capital punishment.

      Anent the second issue, the Court ruled that the jury only found the crime as heinous and atrocious but did not find the petitioner as having the probability to be committing the criminal acts as a threat to the society.

  1. The impact of the case:
  2. What did the case do to change or reinforce the Constitution?

      The decision articulated and laid down a standard of making an exception to the imposition of capital punishment on defendants who are under the age of 16 years old. It categorized and established the principle that its imposition on persons under that age constituted as “cruel and unusual punishment” which is proscribed under the Eighth amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

As mentioned earlier, the parameters of imposing capital punishment are not developed. This landmark case had set a precedent in that respect. It made clear the constitutional provision on cruel and excessive punishment by setting an age standard.

  1. What were the short and long term effects if the decision?

      The short term effect of the decision in this case is the principle that notwithstanding the laws allowing the imposition of capital punishment in certain cases and the plurality of states that adopted death penalty in certain crimes, still its blind application in cases can be deemed to violate the provisions of the Constitution as it is cruel and unusual. On the other hand, its long term effect is it sets a landmark on the prevailing controversies on capital punishment and its imposition on young offenders. The decision also strengthens and complies with Article 68 of the Geneva Convention to which the U.S. is a signatory, setting the age of 18 years old for the imposition of capital punishment.

  1. Any Memorable Quotes with sources:
  2. “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” Warren C.J.

       This means that the provision in the Constitution on “cruel and unusual punishments” require the establishment of standards and parameters which are supposed to be developed by the future generation of judges by applying the standards of what is moral, decent, and just based on a progressive and civilized society. A civilized society should be able to have that freedom to distinguish and categorize cases and instances when capital punishment should be imposed or not taking into consideration the individual characteristics of the case and the moral and mental propensities of the accused. Moreover, laws are dynamic and should be interpreted in a way that is responsive to the signs and demands of the times.

  1. “whole country has traveled far from the period in which the death sentence was an automatic and commonplace result of convictions….” Williams v. New York, 337 U.S. 241, 247.

      Gone are the days where capital punishment was indiscriminately imposed in cases of convictions. Times have changed and society has developed and became more civilized. Consequently, a re evaluation of the principle in meting the penalty of death should be explored towards a more just, moral and humane society of civilized people. There are numerous ways to control crime in a society aside from deterrence by imposing death penalty.



Oklahoma Rules of the Court of Criminal Appeals. Oklahoma Court of Criminal appeals web site. Retrieved on March 29, 2008, from

Rules of the Supreme Court of the United States. U.S. Supreme Court web site. Retrieved on March 29, 2008, from

The 1989 Free Trade Agreement. Retrieved on March 29, 2007, from

Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815. Retrieved on March 29, 2008, from

September 1988. Spiritus Temporis. Retrieved on March 29, 2007, from

U.S. Constitution. U.S. Constitution web site. Retrieved on March 29, 2008, from

Constitution. Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute web site. Retrieved on March 29, 2008, from


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Thompson v. Oklahoma: Case Analysis. (2017, Mar 12). Retrieved from

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