Court must consider Thompson's claims

Saturday, September 12, 2009

NASHVILLE (AP) -- An appeals court is giving death row inmate Gregory Thompson another chance to prove he had ineffective counsel at trial.

Thompson was convicted in August 1985 of abducting former Times-Gazette reporter Brenda Blanton Lane from a Shelbyville Wal-Mart parking lot in January of that year, driving her to a rural area in Coffee County and killing her with a rusty butcher knife.

Lane, 28, a former Shelbyville newspaper reporter, was working in public relations for the United Methodist Publishing House in Nashville at the time of her death.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati on Friday asked the district court to consider four claims of ineffective assistance, including whether Thompson's defense attorney should have cross-examined a psychiatric expert who testified for the government.

The appeals court also overturned a lower court by ruling that Thompson deserves an evidentiary hearing on whether he is mentally competent to be executed.

"Under Tennessee law ... a prisoner is not competent for execution if he 'lacks the mental capacity to understand the fact of the impending execution and the reason for it,"' the ruling states. The appeals court found the Tennessee Supreme Court erred in ruling that Thompson's severe delusions were irrelevant to his competency.

"With respect to Thompson's understanding of his execution, he believes that only the Secretary of the Navy can execute him; that electrocution will not 'eliminate his life,' but that he will live for at least two more years after being electrocuted; and that he will be re-tried for the crime once a 'professional' jury is constituted," the opinion reads, quoting reports from two psychiatrists and a psychologist who examined him.

The hearing on Thompson's mental competency will only take place if the district court first rejects the ineffective assistance claims on their merits.

"We're very pleased he's going to have his day in court to present evidence we believe the jury should have had a chance to hear, but didn't," Federal Public Defender Dana Chavis said.

Sharon Curtis-Flair, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office, said attorneys there are studying the decision and have not yet decided whether to appeal.

Also in the ruling, the appeals court affirmed a lower court's dismissal of a claim that it would be unconstitutional to execute Thompson if he is rendered competent through forced medication. The court found Thompson is not currently being involuntarily medicated. The court left open the possibility that he could bring the claim in the future.