In the early morning hours of September 19, 2014, Frank Gene Thompson drove off U.S. Route 119 in Boone County and into an embankment. The vehicle landed on the passenger side and caught fire.

Four passengers—Thompson’s girlfriend, Betty Holstein, their one-year-old son, Nathaniel Thompson, Holstein’s five-year-old daughter, Alyssa Bowman and Holstein’s friend, Rebecca Bias, were all killed. Frank Thompson survived.

WSAZ-TV

Frank Thompson (photo courtesy of WSAZ-TV)

Thompson had been in trouble before. He was previously convicted of felony breaking and entering and drug distribution.  Because he was a repeat felony offender, Thompson was sentenced to life with mercy.

However, now Thompson is going to get a new trial, and here’s why; the State Supreme Court determined that the trial judge, William S. Thompson (no relation to the defendant) made a serious mistake.

Judge Thompson’s error seemed innocent enough at the time.  The defendant said just before his trial was to begin that he had decided to plead guilty.  Judge Thompson appropriately thanked the 56 members of the jury pool for their time, but then added, “I really can’t tell you much more about the case, but he probably did everyone a favor by doing a plea [emphasis added]. It was a very tragic case.”

But then the defendant changed his mind and decided to go to trial.  Judge Thompson kept the same jury pool, from which the jury was chosen that ultimately convicted the defendant.  The State Supreme Court found that those comments by the judge undermined the defendant’s presumption of innocence.

Justice Margaret Workman, writing for the majority, said, “Petitioner asserts the trial court’s comments to the jury pool irrevocably tainted the group and constituted a denial of his constitutional rights to a fair trial by an impartial jury when the petit jury was selected from the biased jury pool. We agree.”

The court’s decision may feel at first like a stretch, but the presumption of innocence is a bedrock principle in our country’s jurisprudence system.  As Justice Workman said, it is “sacrosanct, regardless of the evidence against him or her.”

Judge Thompson, believing a plea deal had been reached, innocently expressed an opinion that was likely shared by anyone who had knowledge of the case. However, a judge must rigorously guard the belief that he is an objective arbiter of justice.

The criminal justice system sets a high bar for the state.   It must prove its case to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt and the independence of those 12 people who sit in the jury box is essential. Our confidence in the ability of every defendant to get a fair trial, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, is directly linked to the presumption of innocence.

 

 

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