Raising the Bars

Thoughts from Bill DiMascio, former executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society

An unbitter man

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The 57-year-old man spent 42 years in a Pennsylvania prison.  Now, relaxed wearing a baggy prison jump suit in a crowded visiting room at SCI Rockview, he was calmly waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on a case that could end the practice – which all other nations in the world had already ended – of giving juveniles sentences of life without parole.

“It would be the happiest day of my life” if the court declared that sentence to be unconstitutional, the inmate said in a monotone.

And if the decision went the other way “it would be disappointing, but I’d continue to fight,” he added with the slightest hint of excitement.

He didn’t have to wait too much longer.  Within days of that meeting the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory sentences of life without parole for crimes committed by juveniles were unconstitutional, violations of the Eight Amendment prohibition against cruel and inhuman punishments.  The high court found that sentences needed to be graduated and proportional and take into account the offender’s level of maturity and emotional development.  So, no mandatory life without parole sentences are allowed, although the sentence can be imposed at the discretion of the judge.

Back in the visiting room, Jackie Lee Thompson, long a favorite of prison administrators and staff, is quietly doing his time.  His “fight” for freedom is fought without rancor in the courts.

“I’m not bitter,” he declared, his voice strong and practiced as if he was accustomed to repeating those words.  ”The guys in here, the old heads, can’t believe it when I that but it’s true.

“Ever since I came to jail I didn’t blame anybody but myself.  I committed a terrible crime.”

Indeed, the crime was so terrible that it virtually traumatized all of Tioga County back in 1969.  The county sits on the northern border of Pennsylvania, adjacent to New York state.  It is home to what is called “Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon”, a region where pine trees grow over a hundred feet tall and cluster in deep forests.

Jackie was born in Blossburg, the eleventh of 14 children born to a long haul trucker and his wife who died when Jackie was 10.  The younger children were split up in foster care arrangements.  Jackie ran away from several foster homes before settling in with the Whipple family in nearby Gaines.

His life seemed to take another turn for the better when he met and befriended Dennis Ellis.  Jackie was small for his age and thought to be “slow” in school. Everybody picked on him, except Dennis who was the same age but already 6-foot-3 and over 200 pounds. Jackie grew up dirt poor but Dennis, whose family ran an inn, had money and access to guns which the boys used to play with in the woods.  They frequently took the 12 gauge pump shotgun out and practiced firing and pumping another round and firing again to see how fast they could fire all their rounds.

One winter morning Jackie and Dennis went into the woods to hunt rabbits.  They soon noticed that their girlfriends Charlotte Goodwin and Viola Hoppe were following them.  Charlotte had been telling Jackie that he had gotten her pregnant and she wanted him to run away with her to New Mexico.  She started in again that morning.

Jackie became agitated.  “When you’re a kid and scared, it comes out as anger,” he recalled later. He began firing the shotgun, rapidly pumping and firing the three rounds that were in the gun.  Charlotte was wounded and fell to the snow-covered ground; Viola tried to talk to her but Charlotte was unresponsive.  The kids thought she was dead and panicked.

One of them said they should put the body in nearby Pine Creek.  They dragged the body into the water, then tried to put a rock on top so it would submerge.  When that didn’t work they decided to push the body under the ice shelf that had formed near the bank of the creek.

In trial testimony, pathologist Merle G. Colvin described the wounds to Charlotte’s arm, leg and torso, and said there was not enough bleeding, organ damage or shock to cause death.  Instead, he said, she died from drowning.  The medical examination also showed that Charlotte was not pregnant.

The trial was big news in Tioga County.  In fact, the Wellsboro Gazette reported, for the first and only time in Tioga County, the president judge, the late Charles G. Webb, petitioned the state Supreme Court to name a three-judge panel to sit en banc for a hearing to determine the actual degree of guilt.  The high court complied by naming to the panel Judges Evan S. Williams of Bradford County and Otto P. Robinson of Scranton, in addition to Webb.  Yet the courtroom was virtually empty except for the principals, according to a reporter who covered the story.

Sixteen days after the trial, Judge Webb, announced that the three judges found Jackie guilty of first-degree murder and that the penalty for this crime was fixed by law as “imprisonment for life.”  Then the judge added:

“I might say this to you, Jackie.  You will always have hope in a thing of this kind.  We have found that in the past, quite frequently, if you behave yourself there is a good chance that you will learn a trade and you will be paroled after a few years.  That depends on you and how you behave yourself down there.”

In prison, Thompson amassed an impressive record of development and good conduct.   In fact, the Department of Corrections endorsed his appeal for clemency in the early 90s.  Moreover, a retired DOC employee who supervised Jackie on work details, Kenneth Chubb, told the Pardons Board that he would personally provide free room and board at his home for Jackie for as long as it might take for him to get established on the outside.

Among the strongest proponents of clemency for Thompson were Duane and the late Jean Goodwin, Charlotte’s father and stepmother; and Catherine Starkweather, Charlotte’s sister.  Ms. Starkweather sent a short note to the Board before the clemency hearing and said:  “I feel that Jackie has paid his dues.  I feel it is time that he is allowed to be free.  Our mother is deceased, but before she passed away we had a discussion and she felt the same way.”

In an interview with the Elmira, N.Y. Star-Gazette, Duane Goodwin said Thompson “made a bad, bad mistake.  But there’s no way to bring Charlotte back, and there’s no sense forcing Jackie to waste any more of his life in prison.  He has done enough time.”

In a handwritten letter to the Pardons Board in 1993, Duane and Jean wrote:  “We can forgive him.  Why can’t you?”

A cloud of doubt still lingered in Tioga County about the incident.  Jackie Bosek, who was a teenage friend of Jackie Thompson in Gaines, wrote to a group of commutation supporters expressing her doubts about the proceedings.  “No one in our neighborhood was ever called as character witnesses, no one was interviewed, there was never a trial,” said Ms. Bosek.  “Something never added up right in that whole mess.

“Jackie came from a children’s home and…had no one to back him or no money to obtain lawyers.  On the other hand, the other boy’s family had lots of money, hired a top-notch attorney, and walked away from the whole situation with no punishment at all!”

It speaks well for Thompson that he harbors no bitterness about a family that abandoned him, about a legal system that failed to defend him adequately or prosecute this case fairly, and about a clemency process so deeply flawed that it seems incapable of deciding if it wants to pander to the interests of victims or personal ambition.   And it surely takes no bitterness to recognize that this system lacks an appreciation for justice or compassion.

 

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Written by RaisingtheBars

June 29, 2012 at 11:05 am

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