Thompson v. Oklahoma

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Thompson v. Oklahoma
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued November 9, 1987
Decided June 29, 1988
Full case name William Wayne Thompson v. State of Oklahoma
Citations 487 U.S. 815 (more)
108 S. Ct. 2687; 101 L. Ed. 2d 702; 1988 U.S. LEXIS 3028; 56 U.S.L.W. 4892
Prior history Defendant 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
Case opinions
Plurality Stevens, joined by Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun
Concurrence O'Connor
Dissent Scalia, 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)[1], 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."

William Wayne Thompson, a 15-year-old at the time of his crime, was tried as an adult for murder, found guilty, and sentenced to death in an Oklahoma sentencing court. The Court of Criminal Appeals of Oklahoma affirmed and upheld the decision.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider, inter alia, whether a sentence of death is cruel and unusual punishment for a crime committed by a 15-year-old child. The Court held, in a 5-3 decision, that Thompson's execution would violate the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution as applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court noted the "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society" as a primary rationale for the decision, though this was vehemently rejected by the dissent. The Court noted that numerous U.S. jurisdictions and all industrialized Western nations had banned the execution of minors under 16 years of age. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the dissent, and Anthony Kennedy took no part in the decision.

This case was expanded on by Roper v. Simmons 543 U.S. 551 in 2005, where the Supreme Court extended the Evolving Standards rationale to those under 18 years old.


William Wayne Thompson was a 15-year-old repeat offender from Grady County, Oklahoma. His sister Vicki was married to Charles Keene, who was routinely 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 on him. When Brown called the police, the assailants grabbed Keene and fled.

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 later, after Vicki confessed to the police that William said that "he had taken care of him". All three other men were convicted of their crimes and sentenced to death, although Bobby Glass later had his sentence repealed. Thompson was arrested and then went through a psychiatric evaluation to determine whether he was eligible to stand trial as an adult. He was found responsible for his deeds and then convicted by the District Court of Grady County in Chickasha, Oklahoma. He was sentenced to death by the jury.


Thompson's attorneys first attempted to appeal the case on the fact that inflammatory photographs were used by the prosecution to provoke the jury. Although the court did find that two of the photographs should have been excluded from the trial, the overwhelming evidence meant that the case was affirmed by the court.

Then, due to his quickly approaching execution, his attorneys 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. The Court deliberated and made its decision June 29, 1988. They voted 5-3 in favor of Thompson, with Justice Anthony Kennedy not taking part in the case. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the plurality opinion and Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the minority opinion.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

  • ^ 487 U.S. 815 Full text of the opinion courtesy of
  • [2], background information on case, including date of initial offense.
  • [3] The Oyez Project, voting on the case and full opinion.