Sometimes the solemnity of a courtroom belies what happens there. Even when a possible death sentence overshadows a trial, the apparent rectitude of the proceedings may be but a thin veneer.
In such instances, when all other legal remedies have failed, a petitioner's last hope rests in an appeal to the governor — provided he can first persuade the state's Board of Pardons and Parole.
Last spring, in a close and highly unusual vote, that board recommended clemency for Anthony Thrash, a man who was sentenced to life without parole in 1985, and who has already served 23 years in prison on his conviction for capital murder.
If Thrash had not escaped in 1996, and remained free long enough to begin uncovering some of the undisclosed dealings that influenced his conviction, he might never have been able to convince the board that he was wronged. But Thrash did escape, and now the parole board's vice chairman, Abraham Carpenter Jr., says, “I believe there was an injustice at his trial. If all of the truth had been told then, as it has now, I don't think he would ever have been convicted.”
Carpenter was one of four board members who voted to recommend clemency for Thrash. “I didn't want the continued incarceration of an innocent man on my conscience,” he said.
Thrash was tried in 1985 for the shotgun slaying of Garland Bruce “Tommy” Gill, a 23-year-old welder from Dumas, who had a wife and a 3-year-old child. The prosecuting attorney at the time was Sam Pope, who's now a circuit judge.
At Thrash's trial, Pope told the jury that murders seldom get more “cold-bloodeder” than the one they'd been asked to consider. Pope urged them to sentence Thrash to death. The jury found Thrash guilty, but balked on the ultimate sanction. It instead sentenced him to life without parole.
In the past few years, however, one of those jurors has come forward to say that if he had known in 1985 some of the information Thrash has managed to uncover, he would not have voted to convict Thrash at all.
Juror Willie Hampton told the board that he believes Pope misrepresented crucial information about the credibility of the only witness who linked Thrash to Gill's murder. Hampton swore in an affidavit, he “was not given the truth as a juror.”
As a result, Hampton wrote, Thrash's trial “was not a fair trial or a just one.” He urged the board to recommend clemency.
Thrash remained free for six months before he was recaptured in early 1997. In the 11 years since then, he has submitted new information about his trial through appeals to the Arkansas Supreme Court, the U.S. District Court, and the U.S. Supreme Court. All those appeals were denied.
How, then, did anyone on the parole board, let alone a slight majority, conclude, as Carpenter put it, that, “Clearly, something went wrong at that trial”? What did the board see that the courts had not — or had not been willing to consider?
Tommy Gill's disappearance
On July 6, 1980, Tommy Gill was supposed to pick up his wife, Nancy, at the doctor's office in Dumas, where she worked. It was a Friday night, one of the nights that Nancy Gill assisted at the clinic's weight-loss class. Gill never showed up.
When he had not returned home by the next morning, Nancy reported her husband missing. She says sheriff's and State Police officers gave her the brush-off. “They thought we were just young kids,” she says. “They told me, ‘He'll be back tomorrow.' ”
But Gill didn't come back. Nor did he pick up his paycheck. Nancy Gill, who has remarried and is now Nancy Wells, was terrified. “I never believed he'd left me,” she says. “I wondered if he'd had a wreck. If somebody had him, I knew that they also had our truck and the keys to our house. I was so scared I couldn't sleep. But I had to go to work. I had to care for our son.”
Almost two weeks passed before hunters, noticing a smell, discovered Gill's decomposed body under the porch of an abandoned farm house on the west side of Dumas. The medical examiner found a shotgun wound an inch and a half wide at the base of Gill's neck. A months-long murder investigation turned up nothing.
“I was shocked and in pain,” Wells recalls. “We didn't know who'd done this. I was frightened of every person I saw.”
For four years, Gill's murder went unsolved. It probably would have stayed that way, but for an unlikely call to the chief of police in Dumas from a detective in Anchorage, Alaska.
It seemed that a woman there named Deidra Gaddy had confided to a friend that she'd been involved in a murder in Dumas, Arkansas. The friend contacted Anchorage police, who got a search warrant that allowed them to fit the friend with a hidden microphone. When the unsuspecting Gaddy repeated the claim, and police heard it, they checked with Arkansas officials and then arrested Gaddy.
Two Arkansas investigators flew to Anchorage. There they questioned Gaddy and tape-recorded a statement in which she admitted having participated in Gill's murder four years earlier, when she was 16 years old. Gaddy added, however, that the plan had been instigated and mainly carried out by Thrash, who was 11 years her senior.
Her story, essentially, was this:
In June of 1980, she and Thrash were living together in Dumas. They decided to leave town and head to Kansas City, where Thrash had a son, and then on to Chicago, Thrash's hometown. Since they didn't have a car, Thrash said they should steal a vehicle and kill the driver “so there wouldn't be any witnesses.”
According to Gaddy, she took a couple of her mother's wigs, and then she and Thrash, who stood 5-6 and weighed about 110 pounds, both applied heavy makeup and donned dresses, as though they might be prostitutes. The pair then walked across town, from the west side, where they lived, to Highway 65 near the east side, where a carnival was being held in a store parking lot.
There, around 9 or 10 p.m., they encountered Gill, who was driving his black, 1969 Chevy pickup truck. Gaddy spoke to him, she said, because Thrash's voice “was not feminine.” Gaddy told Gill they needed a ride to Pine Bluff, about 40 miles to the northwest, adding, “We can make it worth your time.” According to Gaddy, Gill obliged and the two climbed into his truck, Gaddy in the middle, between Gill and Thrash.
Somewhere between Dumas and Pine Bluff, Gaddy said, Thrash whispered to her that “he needed to go to the bathroom.” Gill pulled over and the two passengers got out and squatted in front of the cab, but then, she said, Thrash stood up, pulled a sawed-off shotgun out of the purse he was carrying, walked to the passenger side door, and shot Gill in the chest. Gaddy said Thrash then walked around to the driver's side door, opened it, and shot Gill again.
According to Gaddy, the two then loaded Gill's body into the back of the truck. She said she could hear the air hissing out of Gill's lungs as they moved him. They drove back to Dumas on Hwy. 65 and from there to the farmhouse, where she said she waited as Thrash hid Gill's body. They then drove back to Dumas, parked the truck and burned their clothes in the bathtub of the house where they'd been living.
By Gaddy's account, they now had Gill's truck, but no money, so, Thrash broke into Blount's pool hall in Dumas, where he stole money for their trip. By Saturday morning, June 7, the two were on their way out of town. When they stopped to get gas in Little Rock, Gaddy said, Thrash noticed blood in the bed of the truck, so they drove through a car wash to clean it.
Gaddy told the police officers that the couple drove, as planned, to Kansas City, where they visited Thrash's son. But the truck broke down and they abandoned it. Since they were once again out of money, Gaddy said Thrash came up with a plan to again dress as women and rob a liquor store.
According to Gaddy, the two executed the liquor store robbery as planned, but they were caught by Kansas City police within minutes and charged with aggravated robbery. Gaddy said she'd had to serve less than a year, because she was a minor, but Thrash had been given a sentence of 10 years to life in a Kansas penitentiary.
The investigators checked with Kansas authorities and found that Thrash was, indeed, serving a sentence for the armed robbery of a liquor store that took place on June 19, 1980 — 13 days after Tommy Gill disappeared. The store's owner had told police that she was held up by two people — a woman and a man dressed as a woman. Though an extensive but unsuccessful search was launched for Gill's black pickup truck in Kansas, the Arkansas investigators were convinced that they had found Gill's killers.
Since Gaddy was pregnant when arrested, she was allowed to remain in Alaska until after her baby was born. In the spring of 1985, she was brought to Arkansas and charged with capital murder.
At Thrash's trial for the liquor store robbery, he testified that Gaddy had gotten angry and stormed out of the house where they were staying. He said he was taking her belongings to her in a gym bag he used when police grabbed him.
He and Gaddy were a short distance apart when stopped by the police. Officers later reported that Thrash was dressed normally, though he was carrying a bag that contained women's clothes. Gaddy was apprehended carrying all of the money from the heist, as well as a billfold belonging to the liquor store's owner.
Thrash maintained that he knew nothing of the robbery, and though Gaddy had at first implicated him when she was questioned, she later recanted those statements and said, instead, that her accomplice was a man whom she'd met during the night in a park. The liquor store owner identified Gaddy as one of her robbers but could not identify Thrash. Though Gaddy did not testify against Thrash at his trial, the jury concluded he was her accomplice.
During a recent interview at Arkansas's Maximum Security Unit at Tucker, Thrash said the first he ever heard of Tommy Gill was when prison officials in Kansas told him he was being charged with Gill's murder. He said he'd told Gaddy he planned to take a Trailways bus to Kansas City, where he was going to see his son, and that on the Saturday he was ready to leave, she abruptly asked to join him.
“In my mind,” Thrash said, “whatever took place the night before that Deidra Gaddy was involved in, she saw going to Kansas with me as a way of dealing with it.”
Back in 1984, however, nobody in Arkansas was buying that explanation. Thrash was brought to Dumas to stand trial for murdering Gill.
At some point during the months leading up to that trial, Pope apparently videotaped Gaddy, in the presence of her lawyer, as she talked about the crime. But if a transcript of that session was made, it was never entered into the court record.
Gaddy, who faced a possible death sentence herself, was the only witness who could connect Thrash to the crime. But with Thrash's trial due to begin at the end of October 1985, Gaddy was holding out, insisting that she would not testify against Thrash unless the court granted her immunity — a guarantee that anything she said at Thrash's trial could not be used against her at her own.
On Sept. 18, just five weeks before Thrash's trial was set to begin, Pope asked that Gaddy be granted that immunity, and Circuit Judge Jerry Mazzanti, who would officiate at Thrash's trial, granted the order. So the prosecutor had his witness, but he also had a problem.
The state's case rested on whether or not the jurors believed that Gaddy had not been induced to testify by any deals that would benefit her. If they suspected that she was implicating Thrash as part of a deal to, literally, save her own neck, they might not even find him guilty, let alone sentence him to death. It was a touchy situation.
Gaddy was the first witness Pope called when Thrash's trial began. As soon as she was sworn in, Pope raised the issue of deals.
“You're aware,” he said, “that an order of immunity has been entered by the court, so that your testimony can't be used against you; is that right?”
Gaddy said that she knew of such an order.
“Would you just tell me in your own mind what that order means to you,” Pope continued, “and what your understanding of it is?”
Gaddy answered deceptively: “Okay. I took it to mean that the testimony on the video that I gave would not be used against me.”
Pope did not correct her, and neither did Judge Mazzanti, though both knew that the immunity order requested by Pope and granted by Mazzanti applied specifically to what Gaddy said at Thrash's trial and not on the video. Instead, Pope asked pointedly: “You haven't been granted immunity from your testimony in this hearing?”
“No,” Gaddy answered. “No.” And Pope let that answer stand.
He then asked another, equally loaded, question. “Have you been promised anything in exchange for your testimony?”
Again, Gaddy answered flatly, “No.”
Thereafter, under skillful questioning by Pope, Gaddy related how she'd been with Thrash when he conceived and executed the idea of killing Gill to steal his truck.
In Arkansas, a person cannot be convicted solely on the testimony of an accomplice, so Pope, the prosecutor, called a number of other witnesses to provide circumstantial evidence to support Gaddy's account.
Gaddy's mother testified that she had, indeed, had some wigs which she had not seen since her daughter left town. Thrash's brother testified that a shotgun he'd owned was missing. Photographs were introduced of what appeared to be a burn-stained bathtub. And a young man identified Thrash as the man who was dressed as a woman that he'd seen standing with a woman near Gill's truck on the night Gill disappeared.
Don Glover, who, like Pope, is now a circuit judge, was Thrash's court-appointed lawyer. Though Glover had never handled a capital murder trial by himself before, and had been given fewer than four months to prepare, he did his best. Glover pointed out, for example, that:
• While Gaddy testified that Thrash had shot Gill twice, the medical examiner found only one shotgun wound.
• Gaddy offered no satisfactory explanation as to why she and Thrash had risked driving back to Dumas, on Highway 65, with a dead body in the back of an open pickup truck, when they could have easily dumped the body in any of the fields that line that road.
• Two witnesses stated unequivocally that they saw Gill's truck parked on a street two — and maybe three — days after the Saturday morning that Gaddy said she and Thrash left Arkansas.
• And police records of the break-in at Blount's pool hall showed that it occurred on a Sunday, the day after Gaddy claimed that she and Thrash had left town.
There were also some significant questions that Glover did not raise, the biggest of which concerned blood.
According to Gaddy, Thrash shot Gill at close range with a sawed-off shotgun, not once, but twice, as he sat in the cab of his truck. But Gaddy never mentioned having to clean the presumably blood-spattered windshield, or having to sit on blood-soaked seats, or dealing with blood in the cab at all. In fact, when interviewed in Alaska, she at one point referred to “the blood in the back of the car.”
Glover never questioned the mysterious absence of blood in Gaddy's account. He called a few ineffectual witnesses on Thrash's behalf, and he bumbled through his closing argument.
Pope was better prepared. When it came time for the prosecutor's closing statement, he told the jury point-blank that Gaddy “didn't have immunity in here the other day.” And though it was false, Mazzanti, who had signed the order granting Gaddy immunity for her testimony at trial, let the statement stand.
Years later, Willie Hampton would tell the Board of Pardons and Parole: “During the trial against Anthony Thrash in 1985, I believed that Deidra Gaddy, the only witness who said Anthony Thrash was involved in this murder, would be tried for capital murder...
“I believed that Deidra Gaddy was not given immunity or promised anything for her testimony against Anthony Thrash and that she would go to trial and that her testimony in Anthony Thrash's trial and her confession would be used against her, because this is what the prosecutor said to the jury during the trial.”
Hampton added that he was persuaded to believe Gaddy because he believed she was testifying without immunity, despite the fact that she “had everything to lose.” He and the other jurors found Thrash guilty, though they denied Pope the death sentence he had wanted.
When Thrash appealed his conviction, the Arkansas Supreme Court denied him relief. It noted, however, that the evidence in his case, “independent of Gaddy's testimony, would not be sufficient to convict Thrash of capital felony murder.”
The aftermath for Gaddy
While Thrash's trial was highly publicized, what followed for Gaddy was not. She too faced either death or life in prison if found guilty of capital murder. But at a hearing in Monticello — not Dumas — less than six weeks after Thrash's trial, Pope offered Gaddy — and she accepted — a reduced charge of first-degree murder, a Class Y felony, in exchange for her guilty plea, and a sentence of 20 years in prison. There was no trial.
Mazzanti, who noted that Gaddy “did assist the state in the prosecution of a guilty party,” accepted Pope's recommendation, though he acknowledged that it was “definitely on the low side of the scale.” Five years later, Gaddy was eligible for parole and out of prison.
Nancy Wells, the victim's widow, was shocked to learn that Gaddy was out of prison so soon. Not even she had known the terms of the deal Gaddy was given. “I felt if she had been charged with capital murder, she should have been put on trial too,” Wells said recently. “But they said, ‘We wouldn't have solved this without her.' ”
Wells remembers that when she questioned Gaddy's speedy release, she was told that Gaddy was dying of ovarian cancer and that she'd been released so she could spend some time with her children. Some time later, Wells recalls, a sheriff informed her that Gaddy had died.
There the matter seemed to rest, until 1996, when Wells was again shocked — and terrified — this time by the news that Thrash had escaped from prison. “I freaked out,” she says. “I was afraid to go to the door, afraid to go to the car, afraid he was looking in the windows.”
According to Dina Tyler, spokesman for the Department of Correction, Thrash put on a blue jumpsuit, which was what new officer recruits wore during training. He then mixed with a group of the recruits and officers during a shift change “and simply walked through the front gate with them.” He was found six months later, living in Pennsylvania, and surrendered peacefully.
Thrash committed no crimes while free, but focused on tracking down rumors he'd heard from other inmates that, contrary to what Gaddy had said in court, she had indeed made a deal with Pope prior to his trial; a deal to testify against him in exchange for evading trial herself and receiving a far lighter sentence.
Two years after Thrash returned to prison, a relative working on his behalf obtained a transcript of the hearing in which Gaddy was sentenced to 20 years. Then, in 2003, that same relative located Gaddy herself. She was quite alive and living in Colorado.
When asked if she would write a statement about her role in Thrash's trial, Gaddy agreed. In a sworn affidavit, she wrote, in part:
“The weekend that Prosecutor Pope came for a videotaped statement along with [my attorney], I told them it was all a lie, meaning that my confession was not true in that Tony Thrash was not with me. ...
“I continued to be unwilling to implicate Thrash in this crime. It was during this period of time that my attorney told me that Prosecutor Pope was willing to make a verbal agreement with me on a lesser charge, lesser sentence, if I would not let the defense or the jury become aware of our agreement, as well as testify against Thrash at trial.
“Nothing should be on paper so that I could go before a jury and say I was not offered anything. It was my understanding that Prosecutor Pope included as a part of this agreement that during Thrash's trial I was to explicitly deny that any agreement of any kind had been made or offered to me in return for my testimony. ...
“During Tony's trial I knew that I would not be going to trial on a charge of capital murder and I also knew that I would not go to trial at all, knowing that my testimony must enable the state to get a conviction on Tony Thrash. ...”
It was upon seeing Gaddy's affidavit and a transcript of the hearing at which Gaddy was sentenced that juror Willie Hampton wrote out his own sworn statement. “I would not have voted guilty as a juror in Anthony Thrash's trial,” he said, “had I known these things at trial.”
While the record shows that Gaddy was promised immunity for her testimony at Thrash's trial, Pope's claims to the jury notwithstanding, it could be argued that no other deals were made; that it was just a matter of legal efficiency that Pope offered Gaddy a reduced charge and a sentence “on the low side of the scale” just a few weeks after Thrash's trial concluded. But there are problems with that view.
One is that, before Thrash's trial, his attorney had filed a motion requiring the prosecutor's office to disclose any offers of immunity “or other inducements” that might have been made to Gaddy. In his response, Pope said that Gaddy would be given immunity “from the use of her statement in the [Thrash] trial against her in her trial.” He added, “There are no other offers.”
But that appears not to have been true. It turns out that while Gaddy was still in Alaska, a full year before Thrash's trial, Pope offered her a deal. In a letter to the Alaska public defender who was representing Gaddy, Pope offered to let Gaddy plead guilty to a Class Y felony, and receive a sentence of 40 years. “Essentially,” Pope wrote, “this means that on a 40-year term, she would be eligible for parole after 10 years, provided she had been a good inmate and so forth.”
Gaddy refused that offer. And Pope never disclosed it. Ultimately, she got a deal that was twice as good: a term of 20 years in prison, which made her eligible for parole in five.
When contacted for this article by phone, Judge Pope was read the part of Gaddy's affidavit in which she accused him of offering her a secret deal in exchange for her testimony against Thrash. “It's not true,” he said.
When asked about the offer he'd made to Gaddy by letter while she was still in Alaska, Pope replied: “I don't remember all the details. It was a long time ago.”
When asked if he was under an obligation to disclose that such an offer had been made, even if it had been rejected, he responded, “Certainly, there would be.”
Then Pope volunteered: “The bottom line with me is, these two people clearly had a relationship, and it was clear that there was a dominant party in that relationship, and that was Anthony Thrash, so I don't have any doubt about what happened. That's the bottom line.”
When Judge Glover was contacted, he expressed surprise upon hearing that Gaddy had been offered a deal before she even arrived in Arkansas. Even if she did not accept it, he said, “Thrash's lawyer should have known.” But, he added, “I never heard that that offer was made.”
When the Board of Pardons and Parole met this spring to consider Thrash's petition, Gaddy came to Arkansas at her own expense to appear in person before the board. As board member Carpenter recalled, “She came forth and made it perfectly clear that Mr. Thrash did not commit the murder.
“I said, ‘Ma'am, this is pretty late in the game for you to be coming forward with this,' ” Carpenter said. “Why did it take you so long?'”
“She said people put pressure on her. Then she said again that the murder occurred at her hands, not his.”
Gaddy is now also known as Maisha I. When contacted for this article and asked to discuss the Thrash case, she said, “I prefer not to talk about it anymore.”
The appearance of Gaddy and the former juror, plus information such as the offer that Pope made to Gaddy while she was still in Alaska, convinced four members of the board that, but for something that “went wrong” at his trial, Thrash would probably have gone free. They recommended that Gov. Beebe right the wrong.
Wells, members of the Gill family, police and politicians in Desha County have written to Beebe, urging that Thrash stay in prison. The Dumas Clarion reported the letter campaign beneath a headline that read: “Widow of man slain by cross-dresser not notified.”
Wells said she was not informed when Gaddy was released from prison, when Thrash escaped, or when Gaddy was found to be alive and came to appear on Thrash's behalf before the parole board.
“She's made up a good story to get Thrash out of prison,” Wells said. Then, more reflectively, she added: “I just don't feel that a person convicted of capital murder with absolutely no chance of parole should ever be released. I feel he destroyed my life.”
Beebe's spokesman, Matt DeCample, said that a decision regarding Thrash would likely be announced in December or January.