Mat­ter of con­vic­tion

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Kirk Mitchell

The “red stuff ” that sat­u­rated the car­pet in the back of an ice cream truck helped get Larry Thomp­son con­victed of mur­der in a 1994 trial. ¶ Den­ver pros­e­cu­tor Kevin Tay­lor used those two words in his clos­ing ar­gu­ment 22 years ago, say­ing it was proof that Thomp­son stabbed Ron John­son to death and hauled his body away in the back of the truck. ¶ Jurors were swayed, and Thomp­son is serv­ing a life sen­tence at the Buena Vista Cor­rec­tional Fa­cil­ity.

But it turned out that red stuff wasn’t John­son’s blood af­ter all, and now Thomp­son is ar­gu­ing that an­other piece of bloody ev­i­dence could prove his in­no­cence — ev­i­dence that pros­e­cu­tors refuse to test.

One mem­ber of the jury that con­vict- ed Thomp­son says the blood-soaked car­pet was what con­vinced her that he was guilty, and she said last week that he de­serves a new trial.

A high-pow­ered le­gal de­fense team — one that re­cently won the re­lease from prison of Clarence Moses-EL, a Den­ver man who spent decades pro­claim­ing his in­no­cence — is seek­ing just that.

“All Larry is do­ing is ask­ing for a new trial,” said his at­tor­ney, John Dicke of Mor­ri­son.

State and fed­eral ap­peals court judges have known since 2006 that the blood ev­i­dence was bad, but they have re­jected Thomp­son’s pre­vi­ous ap­peals for an­other trial, not­ing that four wit­nesses tes­ti­fied against him at trial.

But Dicke filed a new ap­peal in Au­gust, ar­gu­ing that the DNA ev­i­dence from the truck should be con­sid­ered, that the vic­tim’s bloody clothes should be tested for any traces of Thomp­son’s DNA and that the wit­nesses — in­clud­ing Thomp­son’s ex-wife — were un­re­li­able.

“All Larry is do­ing is ask­ing for a new trial.” John Dicke, at­tor­ney for Larry Thomp­son, who was con­victed of mur­der in 1994 and is serv­ing a life sen­tence at the Buena Vista Cor­rec­tional Fa­cil­ity

Ju­ror Eileen Lay­den, 66, said she and the oth­ers on the panel were skep­ti­cal about those wit­nesses.

“It re­ally went on the blood ev­i­dence,” she said in an in­ter­view. “I felt like we con­victed him based on the (blood) ev­i­dence.”

She added: “All the wit­nesses — you weren’t con­vinced of any­thing. They were all ter­ri­ble. It seemed like all of them were all messed up. It all seemed like ev­ery­body was ly­ing.”

Thomp­son was liv­ing in Port­land, Ore., in the fall of 1991, when he re­turned to Den­ver to care for his mother af­ter her heart at­tack.

Pros­e­cu­tors say Thomp­son stabbed John­son more than 40 times on Nov. 10, 1991, be­cause John­son had sold him some “bunk,” or bad crack co­caine.

Thomp­son read­ily ad­mit­ted at trial and in an in­ter­view that he was ad­dicted to co­caine and that John­son was his sup­plier. But he de­nies killing John­son, and he notes that he has never been ac­cused of a vi­o­lent crime, ei­ther be­fore or since he landed in prison.

All wit­nesses against Thomp­son lived in Port­land, in­clud­ing his wife, his wife’s board­ers and a neigh­bor.

In Au­gust 1993, nearly two years af­ter the killing, Thomp­son’s wife, Lisa Pruitt, stepped for­ward to im­pli­cate him in John­son’s mur­der. By then, the cou­ple were es­tranged and she wanted an an­nul­ment.

Pruitt told Port­land po­lice that Thomp­son had threat­ened her. She later said he had pre­vi­ously ad­mit­ted to killing a man in Den­ver two years ear­lier af­ter a drug dealer sold him some bad co­caine.

Upon re­al­iz­ing he’d been swin­dled, Pruitt re­counted for po­lice, Thomp­son told his brother, “Ron has to die to­day,” re­fer­ring to John­son, his brother’s close friend. She said Thomp­son’s brother replied, “Yeah, I know.”

When John­son came over that night, Thomp­son’s brother, who was never charged with the crime, held John­son down while Thomp­son stabbed him, ac­cord­ing to Pruitt’s ac­count. Thomp­son’s wrist was cut as John­son strug­gled, she tes­ti­fied at his trial, so Thomp­son went into a “blind rage” and stabbed him over and over. She claimed her hus­band and his brother wrapped the body in a blan­ket, put it in the brother’s ice cream truck and dropped it an al­ley.

Thomp­son said his ex-wife’s ac­count changed re­peat­edly and was laced with fac­tual er­rors that cast doubt on her story.

Pruitt’s word shouldn’t have been trusted, said Dicke, Thomp­son’s at­tor­ney. She was con­victed of mur­der so­lic­i­ta­tion in 1986, which she claimed at the time was only a game.

Pruitt tes­ti­fied at her trial that she, her third hus­band, and friends would watch TV mys­tery dra­mas like Perry Ma­son and come up with sce­nar­ios of how the killer could get away with mur­der by fram­ing some­one else. Part of the game in­cluded us­ing planted or man­u­fac­tured ev­i­dence.

Pros­e­cu­tors ar­gued that the de­tails Pruitt of­fered were very spe­cific, de­tails only the killer would have known, and that three other wit­nesses also said Thomp­son con­fessed to the mur­der.

Ed Sixberry said Thomp­son told him he had “stabbed a drug dealer in Den­ver” and then called him from a Den­ver jail fol­low­ing his ar­rest for John­son’s mur­der ask­ing him to keep the con­fes­sion con­fi­den­tial. Amilio Aguirre tes­ti­fied Thomp­son told him: “I mur­dered some­body.” Matt Shaw tes­ti­fied that Thomp­son told him when some­one cut him on the wrist “he had to kill him.”

None of the wit­nesses came for­ward in the nearly two years fol­low­ing John­son’s death, and all were re­ferred by Pruitt to Port­land po­lice, Dicke said. Con­victs Sixberry and Aguirre had met Pruitt in Al­co­holics Anony­mous meet­ings, and she had al­lowed them to stay in her home as board­ers, Thomp­son said. Sixberry had been hav­ing an af­fair with Pruitt, Thomp­son said.

Judge Her­bert Stern heard ex­ten­sive tes­ti­mony in 2006 about the new DNA ev­i­dence, pro­cessed by a Cal­i­for­nia foren­sic sci­ence com­pany at Thomp­son’s re­quest, from the blood-stained car­pet and de­ter­mined that it was not enough to “dis­credit” the four wit­nesses.

Pruitt, Sixberry and Aguirre are now dead.

Only Shaw is alive, and he says he wasn’t all that sure that Thomp­son ad­mit­ted to mur­der­ing John­son.

In a phone in­ter­view, Shaw, who still lives in Port­land, re­counted an im­promptu meet­ing he had with Thomp­son in 1991 that led to his trial tes­ti­mony three years later.

He saw that Thomp­son, his nextdoor-neigh­bor in Port­land, was car­ry­ing lum­ber out­side his house and he vol­un­teered to help.

The wrist in­jury, which hap­pened on the same day that John­son was stabbed, had been a crit­i­cal piece of ev­i­dence at the trial. Thomp­son said he was clean­ing his mother’s apart­ment when he cut him­self on a piece of glass and went to the doc­tor.

Shaw said he asked Thomp­son about stitches he had on his right wrist.

Shaw said Thomp­son replied that some­one cut him in Den­ver and that he killed him. It wasn’t a con­fes­sion, as pros­e­cu­tors have since char­ac­ter­ized it, he said. Shaw said Thomp­son used a slang term for killing that he in­ter­preted as a beat­ing or fight.

“When Larry said that I thought he was blow­ing smoke. I thought, ‘Yeah, right, what­ever,’ ” he said.

It wasn’t un­til two years later when Thomp­son was ar­rested for mur­der that Shaw won­dered whether there was some­thing more to the state­ment than he had orig­i­nally thought.

The cut on Thomp­son’s wrist was crit­i­cal ev­i­dence at the trial, but it could also be what proves his in­no­cence if pros­e­cu­tors re­lease ev­i­dence for DNA test­ing and blood from his wrist wound is not found, Dicke said.

Dicke has en­listed the ex­pert anal­y­sis of Dr. Richard Eike­len­boom, who de­vel­oped tech­niques to iden­tify sus­pects with skin cells, and his wife, Dr. Selma Eike­len­boom, a coro­ner.

They have pre­sented ev­i­dence in high-pro­file mur­der cases around the coun­try, in­clud­ing the Casey An­thony mur­der case in Florida. Their tes­ti­mony also helped free Tim Masters from a wrong­ful mur­der con­vic­tion in Fort Collins.

The foren­sic sci­en­tists say they be­lieve it is highly likely that if Thomp­son was cut while stab­bing John­son, Thomp­son’s blood or skin cells would be all over John­son’s clothes, a mat­tress cover and an or­ange elec­tri­cal cord used to bind him. Ev­i­dence found with the body in­cluded hairs and fibers, which also have not been tested for DNA, Dicke said.

If Thomp­son’s DNA is found all over the ev­i­dence, he won’t get a trial, Dicke said. “If none of the ev­i­dence has his DNA on it — that’s huge,” he said.

Den­ver District At­tor­ney Mitch Mor­ris­sey’s of­fice re­fuses to turn over the crit­i­cal ev­i­dence, in­clud­ing the vic­tim’s blood-soaked clothes, for DNA tests, Dicke said.

DA spokes­woman Lynn Kim­brough said pros­e­cu­tors could not com­ment while the case is un­der ap­peal. Court records state the pros­e­cu­tion’s po­si­tion, she said.

In court records, pros­e­cu­tors have fought Thomp­son’s nu­mer­ous ap­peals for a new trial, most re­cently ar­gu­ing in a mo­tion that he does not of­fer any new ev­i­dence that dis­proves the wit­nesses’ tes­ti­mony.

A judge pre­vi­ously re­jected the DNA ev­i­dence from the truck as a ba­sis for a new trial, and the judge at the orig­i­nal trial barred tes­ti­mony about an­other man who al­legedly con­fessed to the killing.

Henry Cooper, who pros­e­cuted Thomp­son at the 1994 trial, is now Den­ver’s chief deputy district at­tor­ney. A mo­tion he filed Nov. 17 states that “the only claim that the de­fense has set forth is that post-con­vic­tion coun­sel has met with an ex­pert and is hope­ful that a re­ex­am­i­na­tion of the ev­i­dence that ex­isted at the time of the trial might ... shed some light on this case.

“The de­fense claim at this point has no sub­stance and amounts to no more than hy­po­thet­i­cal wish­ful think­ing,” the mo­tion says.

While his lawyers con­tinue to press his case, Thomp­son tries to re­main hope­ful.

“I’m not go­ing to die here for some­thing I didn’t do,” Thomp­son said dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view at a small plas­tic din­ner ta­ble in the cafe­te­ria of Buena Vista prison.

In his 22 years in prison, “I have not put my hands on any man,” he said. He’s be­come a prison sage for his mostly younger cell­mates who call him “old school.”

“I do my time as qui­etly as I can. But time is not my friend here. My life has been a liv­ing hell,” Thomp­son said. “Re­al­ity has been so hor­ri­fy­ingly stranger than fic­tion.”

“I do my time as qui­etly as I can. But time is not my friend here. ... Re­al­ity has been so hor­ri­fy­ingly stranger than fic­tion.” Larry Thomp­son

RJ San­gosti, The Den­ver Post

In­mate Larry Thomp­son is serv­ing a life sen­tence with­out pa­role for a mur­der he says he didn’t com­mit. Af­ter serv­ing over 20 years at the Buena Vista Cor­rec­tional Fa­cil­ity, Thomp­son hopes to get his case re­opened.

RJ San­gosti, The Den­ver Post

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