Matter of conviction
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
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.