cover_story (2006-05)

Brenda Lane

Last month, R. Allan Edgar, a senior federal district judge in Chattanooga, granted a 30-day stay of execution in the case of death row inmate Greg Thompson, likely to be the last reprieve for a murderer first scheduled to be executed 20 years ago. The stay provides defense attorneys with one last chance to prove Thompson is too mentally ill for capital punishment, even though previous state and federal judges have ruled Thompson is sane enough for the state to kill him.

Diagnosed as bipolar and schizophrenic, Thompson’s illness appears to be more severe than Robert Glen Coe’s, the Memphis-area pedophile whom one court-appointed psychiatrist could find nothing wrong with other than nicotine addiction and a propensity to masturbate in public. Thompson, on the other hand—who, after Coe, would be only the second person executed in Tennessee since 1960—was so crazy several years ago that the Attorney General’s office asked the court to appoint a conservator to force him to take powerful antipsychotic medications like Lithium and Prolixin.

The paradox of Thompson’s case is that since he’s improved enough to end the conservatorship, the Attorney General’s office has pushed to have him executed. “The drugs the state is pouring into Greg cause chemically created behavior that masks his tortured insanity,” his federal public defender, Dana Hansen Chavis, says. “Without this pharmacy of anti-psychotic drugs the state is pumping into him, he would return to the insane nightmare he was experiencing at the time of the murder. He would not know where he is, or even who he is. The state gives Greg one regimen of chemicals in the hope that it will get the green light to administer another set of chemicals that will kill him.”

Since medieval times, courts have disapproved of executing the insane for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s offensive to humanity. But executions of the insane are still common, mainly because the threshold to be considered competent for execution is extremely low. One of the better-known examples involved Bill Clinton, who raced home during the 1992 presidential campaign to oversee the execution of a cop killer who blew away part of his brain during a suicide attempt. The Arkansas man was so delusional he asked that a piece of pecan pie be left in his cell to eat after he was executed.

The standard for determining competency to be executed is rather simple and easy for prosecutors to demonstrate. Does Thompson know why he is being executed? Does he remember the murder and his connection to it? If Thompson is medicated, his answer to both questions is yes.

Not even a reversal in judgment by the man who prosecuted him, Buck Ramsey, or the claim by his defense attorney in trial that he was poorly represented, have been enough to persuade the court system to commute his sentence. Ramsey, who retired in the early 1990s, says he believes Thompson was beginning to show psychotic symptoms at the time of the murder because of damage to his frontal lobe, removing inhibitions to commit crime. Thompson is much different, Ramsey says, than another death row inmate, Wayne Lee Bates, whom Ramsey convicted two years after Thompson. Bates was an escaped convict who shot a female jogger in the back of the head, stole her car and drove to Baltimore before being captured. “Thompson was not a career criminal by any means,” Ramsey says. “He was the wrong man at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The wrong time was New Year’s Day, 1985, and the wrong place was the sidewalk in front of the Wal-Mart in Shelbyville, a town less than an hour south of Nashville known for walking horses and the manufacturing of pencils, Sharpies and other writing utensils.

Thompson was then a 23-year-old black man from rural Georgia who held a series of meaningless jobs after being discharged from the Navy in 1982. On one of the jobs he met Joanne McNamara, a chubby, brown-haired 15 year old who abandoned a newborn in Marietta to run away with Thompson to Shelbyville. Witnesses would later recall they easily remembered Thompson and McNamara at the Wal-Mart because he was tall and black, she short and white.

They made an odd couple, or at least the kind of pair not often seen in Shelbyville in the mid-1980s.

Thompson and McNamara arrived at the Wal-Mart anxious to escape town. The two spent several nights at the home of an adult friend of McNamara’s, Willa Mae Odum, who alerted police that McNamara was a runaway when she discovered the couple were not married, as McNamara had claimed.

With no money or means of transportation, they decided to steal a car. Thompson had packed a rusty butcher knife he’d brought from Georgia for cooking, he’d later say, and for self-defense. He convinced McNamara to distract a victim long enough so he could get close with the knife.

The victim they chose was a small, pretty public relations employee, Brenda Lane, who was buying aluminum foil and shampoo before her husband Steve came home from work. McNamara approached Lane in a poorly lit corner of the parking lot. She asked directions to a hospital, allowing Thompson to flash the knife and force Lane into her yellow Chevy Cavalier.

They drove around for more than an hour looking for a place to drop off Lane. Because Thompson and McNamara traveled to Shelbyville by bus, neither was oriented to rural Tennessee. They initially drove toward Murfreesboro, but circled back and wound up in the soybean fields of Coffee County.

Lane got out of the car. Thompson followed a short distance, and, on impulse, he has since claimed, grabbed Lane around the throat with one arm while stabbing the rusty knife in her back four times, puncturing her lungs twice. At least one of the wounds went six inches inside Lane’s body, cracking a rib.

Thompson hopped into Lane’s Cavalier and, looking into the rearview mirror, could see she was still alive. He put her car in reverse and tried to run her over. But Lane was lying on a mound of dirt, which Thompson mistook for her body. He would later tell police he ran over her when he didn’t.

Lane lived for another 10 minutes, according to the coroner who examined her. When police found her two days after the murder, they could tell she had turned herself over. Her back was arched; her eyes stared vacantly into the sky. Even today, lawmen say they can remember the horror on Lane’s face when they first saw her.

After stabbing Lane, Thompson and McNamara found Interstate 24 and headed south toward Marietta. At 8:25 p.m., about an hour after murdering Lane, they were stopped by state trooper Roy Phillips for speeding. Phillips noticed the Cavalier didn’t belong to Thompson, but he didn’t run the plates because Thompson was polite and calm and relaxed. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary. Sitting in the patrol car, Thompson bummed a cigarette and explained he’d bought the car in Tennessee but would register it in Georgia.

The couple was allowed to continue to Marietta, where they decided to torch Lane’s Cavalier. They doused the inside with gasoline, but the fire didn’t cause much damage because the windows were rolled up. Witnesses remembered seeing a tall black man and short white girl walking away from the burning vehicle.

When police in Tennessee were alerted, one of them remembered that a black man and white girl had pawned stolen property in Shelbyville. The cop pulled the report and found the names the pawnshop owner had given: Greg Thompson and Joanne McNamara. Once provided with the names, Marietta police easily captured the two. Police found the speeding ticket in one of Thompson’s pockets.

McNamara confessed first. In a halting, tight-lipped interview, Thompson eventually described for police the location of Lane’s body, an event police videotaped. Thompson would later argue his confession should be dismissed because he thought he was talking to a defense attorney, not a Cobb County prosecutor. But the judge ruled in favor of the prosecution and the confession was presented to the jury.

The confession hardly mattered. Thompson’s guilt was obvious and easily proved. At trial, his court-appointed attorneys, Tom Parsons and Doyle Richardson, didn’t bother to feign innocence. “He does not deny the commission of the acts involved in this tragic situation, and he’ll not try to,” Parsons said in his opening statement to the jury. Instead, the two attorneys, who had never tried a capital case, presented Thompson as a country boy not much different than jury members. The lawyers had traveled to Thompson’s hometown and interviewed his teachers, noting with amazement the high school’s 13-1 student-to-teacher ratio and how well Thompson performed as a student. “I’d be proud if my kids did that well,” Parsons said.

The defense attorneys devised a stray kitten theory, claiming Thompson’s nurturing personality led him to be overprotective of McNamara, forcing him to panic once he thought police would take her from him.

The all-white jury dismissed the idea. In their minds, Thompson couldn’t have murdered a less deserving person. Not only was Brenda Lane a newlywed about to begin a family, she was voted 1982 Outstanding Young Woman of Bedford County. She was a church secretary, a soloist in the choir and a features reporter for the Shelbyville daily before becoming a United Methodist Church public relations employee. Her uncle was Shelbyville’s police chief and her family members remain pillars of the Shelbyville area.

The two prosecutors who tried Thompson—Buck Ramsey and J.W. Luna—were tenacious in the pursuit of the death penalty, but neither relished the job. Both cried outside the courtroom after the verdict was read. They had to ask for the death penalty, they felt, because Tennessee law didn’t offer convicted killers the chance of life without parole in 1985. Their choices were limited to the electric chair or, much more unlikely, to ask a jury and family members to accept the possibility Thompson might one day be released on parole. (In fact, Joanne McNamara, Thompson’s accomplice, was released from prison last May.)

Before trial, two mental health experts examined Thompson. The first was Dr. Robert Watson, a psychologist with the Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute, who, after a 30-day analysis, found Thompson to be a disordered thinker, slightly paranoid and delusional. Thompson’s personality profile, the doctor wrote, indicated a “malingering in the mental health direction.” In other words, Watson thought Thompson was faking mental illness and concluded he was able to stand trial.

Thompson’s attorneys, unwilling to trust Dr. Watson, who was considered to be a prosecution witness, hired George Copple, a Vanderbilt psychologist. Copple’s main objective wasn’t to analyze Thompson’s mental state but to judge in which ways he was suitable for prison—evidence that might be presented to a jury deciding whether Thompson’s life was salvageable. Copple found Thompson possessed an unusually strong need to nurture and liked activities like drafting and sketching. He reported no behavioral disorders.

In any event, prosecutors already had a failsafe plan to ward off charges of insanity. Thompson had sat in a state trooper’s patrol car, smoking a cigarette, an hour after brutally murdering a helpless woman. This wasn’t the work of a raving lunatic, they were prepared to argue, but a cold-blooded killer in complete command of his mental faculties.

After trial, Tom Parsons did something unusual for a defense attorney. He personally argued during the appeals process that his bad lawyering had landed Thompson on death row. Parsons claimed he’d failed to present evidence that Thompson had shown signs of mental instability from childhood. As a child, Thompson was known to bang his head on a wall, trying to remove “demons” he thought were inside, and he’d also hit his head during an automobile accident.

While in the Navy several years before the murder, Thompson began suddenly to lash out violently. He pulled a knife on roommates for turning on a light while he was sleeping. He was eventually kicked out of the Navy for body-slamming a petty officer on a flight deck in Barbers Point, Hawaii. Thompson was “considered to be an extremely violent and dangerous individual who has no place in the U.S. Armed Services,” one of the officers discharging Thompson wrote. Before leaving Hawaii, he’d also pulled a knife on his girlfriend during an argument in their kitchen.

Contemplating how to use the case history, Parsons ran into the same life-with-parole sentencing problem prosecutors had faced. How could the defense attorney convince a jury to send a violent crazy man to prison if they knew he might one day be paroled? “It would have been much more likely to convince a jury to send him to prison if he could never get out,” says Parsons, who remains a father figure to Thompson to this day.

Judges at various stages of Thompson’s appeals process have ruled against Parsons’ ineffective counsel claim, saying that choosing a tactic that still landed Thompson on death row didn’t mean Parsons was ineffective.

Immediately after he was sentenced, Thompson began to display symptoms of mental illness. Less than a month after trial, he complained to prison officials he had an insect in his ear when, on inspection, there was nothing inside. A psychologist attributed the incident to anxiety over Thompson’s original execution date, Jan. 1, 1986.

By the following summer, Thompson had tried to kill himself three times. He was placed on the mood stabilizer Lithium and diagnosed with a bipolar disorder. Over the next few years, psychiatrists reported he claimed to be delusional, saying he had snakebites on his finger, believing himself to be God and hearing voices. A K-9 bit him several times when he attacked the dog, which was called upon to quell a disturbance Thompson caused in his cell. Thompson told doctors he stopped taking Lithium because he thought it reduced his “powers.”

By 1990, Thompson’s condition had deteriorated to the point where he’d set his cell on fire, creating second degree burns on his arms and singing his facial hair. He claimed he was a songwriter and the president. He said he built the space shuttle. He could communicate for about five minutes, then would descend into babble (what psychiatrists call “word salad”). Doctors weren’t sure whether he suffered from bipolar disorder or paranoid schizophrenia, but continued to prescribe medications like Haldol for mania and hyperactivity, Mellaril for hallucinations and disorganized thinking and Tegretol for jaw pain.

Over the next decade, Thompson’s mental problems fluctuated, more or less, depending on whether he was taking his medications. In his worst moments, he threw body fluids on a prison chaplain, set his cell on fire again, threatened prison guards and complained of seeing God, the devil and eyeballs. He had crying spells, paced in his cell and boasted of writing songs for the now-defunct hip-hop group Arrested Development.

By 2001, Thompson had become such a problem for prison staff that, at the request of the state Attorney General’s office, a conservator was appointed to make medical decisions on his behalf. By this time, Thompson was easily agitated, slept very little, talked to the walls, called people’s names as if they were in the cell with him and said he’d be released from prison because “Big Bird was on his side.” Prison doctors reported they looked for signs of malingering but could find none.

With a conservator forcing Thompson to take medication, his mental condition stabilized. He wasn’t as hostile to prison staff and took medications on his own. In the fall of 2003, he was given a clean bill of health and the conservatorship was dissolved, which also meant Thompson could be regarded competent to be executed.

Greg Thompson today is much different than the lithe young man videotaped confessing to a Cobb County prosecutor in humiliated, halting words 20 years ago. His nickname around Unit 2 of the Riverbend Maximum Security Institute is Jellyroll because of Thompson’s large girth. He turned 44 in December but could easily pass for 65. His beard is gray and his hairline has receded to the middle of his head.

Thompson is crazy, but not in the way you might expect. He doesn’t slobber or tic or punch the glass separating him from visitors. His eyes are clear but sedate. He says he sleeps most of the day. He is heavily medicated, and among his regimen is a drug that supposedly relieves shaking caused by the anti-psychotics, though his hands shake anyway.

Like Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men , Thompson is eager to please and impulsive. He jumps to his feet at one point during an interview, asking the Scene ’s photographer to film an appeal to Gov. Phil Bredesen. The digital camera is standard-issue for print journalists, but Thompson speaks into it as if it were a television camera. “Governor, if you can see me, if you can hear me, I apologize for anything I’ve done. I wish you’d help me out. I don’t know what you know about my case, but I wish you’d help me out.” Then, preparing to sit down, Thompson adds to the nuttiness of the appeal by saying, “There. Now they can’t say I didn’t beg.”

It is obvious he’s obsessed with two issues: sex and race. He hates black people, he says, because they “make stupid decisions.” When it’s pointed out he is black, Thompson says, “I know it. I was black [at the time of the murder], fucking up. I loved all my black brothers but fought against my own mind.”

He blurts out an outrageous theory he has repeated many times before. He claims he’s written every song on the radio. “Rock, blues, jazz, classic,” he says. “Been doing it for 30-something years.” He says he sent Brenda Lane’s family a check from his royalties to compensate for their loss.

Other flights of fancy aren’t as innocuous. He says Lane wasn’t the first person he’d killed. One of his alleged victims he shot while stationed in the Navy in Mountain View, Calif., another he stabbed four times while stationed in Hawaii. (Police in both jurisdictions say they have no open murder cases like those Thompson described to the Scene .) He also said he had sex with Brenda Lane four times before killing her. (Evidence of rape has never been presented in court, and prosecutors strongly deny Lane was raped.) “I just want to put that on the record,” Thompson said. “I did it. I don’t know why they haven’t fingered me for that.”

It’s these kinds of delusions that Thompson’s defense team emphasize to show just how off the charts he is. Faye Sultan, a Charlotte psychiatrist, has examined Thompson dozens of times. She says Thompson has told her he murdered more than 20 people after killing Brenda Lane. “He’s a mentally ill man,” Sultan says. “Why that idea appeals to him that he tells it proudly I have not a clue. When he’s medicated, he’s the gentlest man in the world. But even medicated, he is so psychotic he talks about crimes he’s committed that we know for a fact he’s never done. That’s how crazy he is.”

Tennessee law is clear that a stay of execution based on competency does not void a death sentence. Thompson cannot become a ward of the Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities because that would take an act of the legislature, not a judge’s signature. His only hope is probably Gov. Phil Bredesen, who has commuted only one sentence since taking office. Clark McMillan of Memphis was exonerated last year when DNA evidence cleared him of robbery and rape charges. Tom Parsons, Thompson’s attorney, doesn’t expect Bredesen, a centrist pro-death penalty Democrat, to add Thompson to the list. “He’s the best Republican we ever elected,” Parsons says with a bit of contempt.

Last week, before the stay was granted, Thompson was mostly resigned to the fact he would soon be put to death. “I have to die someday anyway,” he says. “If the family still wants me to die, I’ll go.” Asked if being executed would put him out of his misery since insanity is its own prison, Thompson said he was actually beginning to enjoy incarceration. “I get up every morning and the coffee is ready. I have a smile on my face. I was born to be here. I was born to do what I want.”

It’s the kind of logic only a madman would argue with.