A tale of two sisters and two murders
Thanksgiving came early for 17th Judicial District officials here and in Bedford, Lincoln and Moore counties because Kimberly Ross confessed to plotting the murder of her husband, Bill Ross. The Shelbyville car salesman was shot three times while he slept in his Wartrace Pike home on Valentine's Day.
By pleading guilty, Kimberly Ross avoided a jury trial and cleared a docket that had been reserved for six days and that promised weekend work between jury selection and opening arguments. The trial would have been held in Shelbyville because that's where the murder happened, but the case attracted plenty of interest here. Bill and Kimberly had lived here and in Cornersville before moving to Shelbyville last year and the widow Ross had a co-defendant who recently graduated from Marshall County High School.
Justin Young, 19, of Lewisburg, has cut a deal to plead guilty and testify against Kimberly, according to attorneys close to the case. Justin loaded the gun provided by Kimberly and handed it to Ashley Cook, who'd moved here from Williamson County. Ashley is charged with shooting Bill.
The prosecution's theory is that Kimberly had to get rid of Bill because she was engaged to marry Terry Aber of Tulsa, Okla. He had been wiring money to her for years. With Bill gone, she'd move to Tulsa and take Justin with her.
"Thank goodness Kimberly pleaded guilty," Tammy Ross said when her sister-in-law was sentenced to life in prison with a chance of parole. "It's a big relief."
Tammy didn't want to hear more lies about her brother mistreating Kimberly. The widow blurted out to a TV camera that Bill raped her. Bill's friends volunteered to be character witnesses for the friendly salesman, hunting buddy and volunteer firefighter.
The victim's sister volunteers her view on the sentence: "I'm glad the death penalty is not imposedů I want her to live with this for the rest of her life."
Execution might be relief for Kimberly and Tammy doesn't want her to have that.
Over in Bedford County, Barbara Brown said she's leaning toward accepting the state's invitation to witness the execution of Gregory Thompson. The death-row inmate killed Barbara's sister, Brenda Blanton Lane, a former Shelbyville Times-Gazette reporter. She was repeatedly stabbed and left to die near headwaters of the Duck River.
Brenda died nearly 23 years ago on New Year's Day. She was to return to work the next day in Nashville, where United Methodist Communications had promoted her from staff writer to associate director of public relations.
Barbara and others in Bedford County who remember the 28-year-old reporter believe it's "very likely" that Brenda was praying for Thompson's soul and her own life when he stabbed her and drove off.
Thompson was given the option of selecting execution by electrocution or lethal injection because his crime occurred before Tennessee lawmakers decided poison is more humane than the chair. Thompson has selected the needle.
Another former Bedford County resident, Daryl Holton, selected the chair for his last seconds. Holton said he killed his three sons and their half sister because they were better off dead than being raised by his ex-wife. Holton knew plenty about the on-going debate over whether the first two doses of the three-drug cocktail only prevent the condemned from showing any sensation of pain. It's alleged that there's a burning sensation in the veins caused by the poison.
Holton may have been crazy like a fox, selecting the chair and thereby preventing self-appointed defense attorneys from postponing punishment he felt he deserved.
Now, 60 Minutes, the CBS News program, has aired video tape of Thompson saying, "I'm nuts."
If Holton's logic seems twisted consider what our judicial system faces with Thompson.
Apparently, he wasn't insane when he killed Brenda Blanton Lane. That's according to those who still remember his trial.
However, he may well have gone crazy after nearly 23 years of incarceration. As a result, or so goes the argument made for him by anti-death penalty attorneys, he's not competent for execution. It's wrong to execute someone with mental illnesses and now such a protection for those who do wrong while mad may be extended to those who have been held too long.
And so, it seems, Alfred Hitchcock was right when he said, "There is no terror in the bang; only in the anticipation of it."
The passage of time has had another effect. Two decades on death row may have made Thompson "nuts," but it seems that the passage of time has changed Barbara Brown's approach to the prospect of witnessing the execution of her sister's killer.
"I always thought, through the years, that I would not, but now maybe I would," she said a couple of days before the 60 Minutes report was broadcast on Nov. 11.
Her reason: She's her sister's last living blood relative, the only person in their family to be there for Brenda.
Asked whether a condemned inmate should be executed without pain, Brown said, "I really don't think that should be a factor. It wasn't a factor when he killed Brenda. He didn't take into consideration how she felt.
"What he did to Brenda was cruel and inhuman."
If the needle and poison cause a burning sensation, aren't there other formulas that can be developed and sharper and thinner needles? Can't those accommodations be made and a choice of final cocktails could be offered? Under such circumstances executioners could say, "Pick your poison."
Revenge versus closure is this tale of two sisters. Tammy Ross wants her sister-in-law to suffer life in prison. Brenda Lane has been waiting for justice. Barbara Brown can't forget her sister, or the crime, but recurring reports on court hearing after court hearing have been a painful reminder that it's not over yet.
Surely there's agreement that our judicial system should leave no stone unturned in pursuit of the truth for every defendant, victim, their friends and relatives. And isn't it comforting to know there are attorneys who take up the cause of a lost soul? How disturbing is it that a man who was probably on illegal drugs when he killed his victim is now on prescribed pharmaceuticals? Aren't we embarrassed that wags mock the system saying he's being drugged into sanity so he can be killed?
After 23 years, who could argue there's not been delay for all involved?
Now, these circumstances can't be unique, so perhaps there have been cases with similar circumstances. This isn't a law journal article, but it's easy to see that a lack of action can be perceived by citizens as a lack of leadership.
America is split in Congress and conscience.
Thanksgiving has now passed and it is officially the holiday season. A wise man on Sunday explained that these are the holy days and that ethical action from moral courage is holy. It is also ritually pure -- or for those of us who place words on these pages -- true to our tradition to avoid taking a stand on issues for which we are to report without bias.
We can offer ideas on options in the form of questions.
If the system has denied justice through delay, can those in a position to decide say the death penalty is now wrong in Thompson's case? Do they have that power? Was that authority held by jurors? Have jurors witnessed executions? Have judges? Will Barbara?
Even if you oppose the death penalty, isn't there an argument to be made that just the threat of it can be enough to bring a defendant to their senses so that a case that has overwhelming proof of their crime can be settled?
State lawmakers have been asked to take the death penalty from the toolbox carried into court by prosecutors. Who believes they will?
Kimberly Ross faced three prospective punishments: death, life in prison without the chance of parole, and life with the chance of parole.
The last of those options means there's only the eligibility for release after 51 years if a parole board agrees to such a request. It doesn't happen the first time. After half a century in prison, would anybody still be sane, even without the prospect of execution hanging over them?
Clint Confehr is the senior staff writer for the Marshall County Tribune and the Shelbyville Times-Gazette. He covers court system and other government news beat.