book reviews, law, true crime, Virginia

Reviewing Anatomy of an Execution: The Life and Death of Douglas Christopher Thomas, by Todd C. Peppers and Laura Trevvett Anderson…

Recently, I mentioned that I would be reviewing an honest to God book, rather than a Kindle download. Thanks to a snowstorm and concerted effort, I’ve just finished reading that book, Anatomy of an Execution: The Life and Death of Douglas Christopher Thomas. It wasn’t easy to read this well-researched 2009 book, written by Todd C. Peppers and Laura Trevvett Anderson. Not only was the subject matter difficult and depressing, but the print was also very small for my 50 year old eyes. I ended up investing in a book light to help me with the process. Even with multifocal contact lenses, I still have some trouble with fine print!

In any case, I did finish the book this afternoon, and I’ve been very eager to review it. Based on hits on previous true crime blog posts about Jessica Wiseman and Chris Thomas, I know people are still interested in reading about this 1990 murder case out of Middlesex, Virginia. On December 17, 2022, this blog received a huge influx of hits. Someone linked an earlier blog post mentioning Jessica Wiseman on Reddit. The post in question wasn’t even just about Jessica Wiseman. It only mentioned her case in relation to another true crime case out of Wisconsin.

I decided to seek out more information about the murders and, sure enough, discovered Peppers’ and Anderson’s book. Anatomy of an Execution is not available on Kindle, although the printed version is available through Amazon Prime for $29.95. I don’t often read actual books anymore. Kindle makes reading after lights out easier, plus the print is larger and more adjustable. I also like Kindle books because it’s easy to share passages and make notes. Nevertheless, I was so intrigued by this murder case that I decided to order the physical book, even though it meant temporarily being a Luddite. It arrived a few days ago and I quickly devoured it.

Who are Jessica Wiseman and Chris Thomas? Why is there a book about them?

As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in Gloucester County, in the Middle Peninsula of Virginia. Gloucester is adjacent to rural Middlesex County, which is just north. On November 10, 1990, I was a freshman at Longwood College (now Longwood University). It was just before Thanksgiving break. On that night, a horrific murder took place in Middlesex. A 14 year old girl named Jessica Wiseman, and her 17 year old boyfriend, Chris Thomas, murdered Jessica’s parents, James Baxter and Kathy Wiseman. The two thought they were in love, and Jessica’s parents– specifically her father– had forbidden them to be together. Chris took a shotgun from his uncle’s house and snuck over to Jessica’s house in the middle of the night. Then, together, the two made the worst decision of their lives.

Jessica had greased the window in her bedroom, to make sure it didn’t squeak as Chris climbed through it on that fateful November night. Even as he entered Jessica’s bedroom, Chris didn’t think he’d actually go through with the plan to commit murder. Jessica was determined. She had spread drug paraphernalia on the floor, to make it look like a drug deal gone bad.

As Chris stood by, Jessica warned him to shoot her daddy before he woke up, lest he kill Chris. Chris fired, and J.B. Wiseman died instantly. Then he shot Kathy Wiseman, but she got out of bed and staggered into Jessica’s bedroom. That time, Jessica fired, and Kathy Wiseman died. In a tragic display of misguided chivalry, Chris Thomas confessed to killing both parents. Because he confessed to firing the shot that killed Kathy Wiseman, Chris Thomas was charged with capital murder, which made him eligible for the death penalty.

I’m not sure if I was aware of the Wiseman murders when they happened. That was before everyone was online, and I was busy with college. I read the local newspapers a lot in those days, and I do remember that Jessica Wiseman and Chris Thomas were frequently reported about in the newspapers. The case had caused quite a scandal because, at that time in Virginia, no one under the age of 15 could be tried as an adult, regardless of how serious their crimes were. Jessica Wiseman was fourteen years old when she convinced Chris Thomas to murder her parents. She spent just under seven years in juvenile hall, and was released on July 26, 1997, which was her 21st birthday. Chris Thomas, by contrast, was tried as an adult. He was executed on January 10, 2000. He was 26 years old when he died.

Who are Todd C. Peppers and Laura Trevvett Anderson?

At this writing, author Todd C. Peppers is a lawyer and a visiting professor of law at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. He is also on the faculty of the Department of Public Affairs at Roanoke College, in Salem, Virginia. He’s written several books besides Anatomy of an Execution, and specializes in the Death Penalty, Judicial Behavior, Supreme Court History, and Torts.

Co-author Laura Trevvett Anderson taught special education at Clover Hill High School in Midlothian, Virginia, part of Chesterfield County. For two years, Chris Thomas was one of her students. Anderson formed a special bond with her former student. She served as his spiritual advisor before he was executed on January 10, 2000.

Chris’s tragic story…

Chris was born to Margaret and Billy Thomas, a couple who met in 1972 at Donk’s, a pool hall and concert venue in nearby Mathews County. Donk’s is another name that everyone living near Gloucester knew of, back in the day. Sadly, although the two got married, they were not a love match. Billy was abusive to Margaret. She was also a lesbian. The two got divorced in the months following Chris’s May 29, 1973 birth.

Because of Margaret’s lesbian lifestyle, and the fact that she worked as a prison guard, she decided to have her parents adopt Chris. Then, she moved to Chesterfield County, a suburb of Richmond, Virginia. Consequently, for the earliest years of his life, Chris Thomas was raised by his grandparents, Herbert and Virginia Marshall. Peppers writes that Margaret was jealous of her son, because her parents provided better for him that they had her when she was coming of age. Margaret also had siblings nearby who helped raise Chris in his early years.

In 1985, when Chris Thomas was about eleven years old, he experienced a trifecta of tragedies. His grandfather, Herbert, died of a brain tumor. A few months after that, his grandmother died of ovarian cancer. He also lost his favorite uncle, Winfrey. Chris went to live with Margaret and her lover, and her lover’s children, in Chesterfield. He hated Chesterfield because it was too urban for him. Chris loved to hunt and take solitary walks. He couldn’t do that in Chesterfield, which is much more populated. Chris also resented his mother’s lifestyle, and the fact that she helped raise her lover’s children, but hadn’t been raising him. Chris found a friend in Laura Anderson, a very dedicated special education teacher. With her help, his grades in school improved. But he was still miserable in Chesterfield, and eventually went back to Middlesex.

Chris went to live with his Uncle Herbert and Aunt Brenda Marshall. Herbert had been abusive to Chris when he was younger. He’d even told Chris that he was the reason his parents had died. Nevertheless, Herbert and Brenda provided him with a home in Piankatank Shores, a housing subdivision in Middlesex. Jessica Wiseman also lived there with her parents, along with her grandparents and great-grandparents. Jessica was reportedly a spoiled girl, whose grandparents and great grandparents provided her with everything she could want. She even had her own golf cart for getting around the subdivision. When she wrecked it, they bought her a new one. She had her own bedroom in each of their homes, too.

Chris was a good looking kid, who’d had a number of “girlfriends” younger than he was. Jessica caught his eye, and it wasn’t long before they were spending all of their time together. Chris was also getting in trouble with the law– committing petty, non-violent crimes. Without Laura Anderson’s committed mentorship, Chris’s school performance plummeted. He didn’t care. Neither did Jessica, whose family members didn’t seem interested in instilling a sense of responsibility within her. She and Chris were sexually active, and Jessica worried about pregnancy. She wanted Chris to marry her, but her father, who worked as a truck driver, forbade it. That was when she came up with her plan to murder her parents. Sadly, Chris Thomas let her talk him into helping her with her plan. He paid for that mistake with his life.

My thoughts on the book

I found Anatomy of an Execution a fascinating read on so many levels. Again, I grew up in Gloucester, Virginia, and some of the judges and lawyers involved in the Wiseman murders were from my hometown. Although I was never unfortunate enough to meet any judges or lawyers from Gloucester in an official capacity, it was impossible to read our local newspaper in the 80s and 90s and not see the names of the people who worked on this case. Peppers does a great job of telling Chris Thomas’s story, starting from the tragic beginning.

This book is extremely well-written and researched. There are some typos in the book, as well as a few very minor fractured facts. Peppers refers to Clover Hill as being in Richmond, for instance, when it’s not. I used to drive past Clover Hill on my way to Longwood and had a roommate who graduated from there. Richmond is its own city. However, this is a very minor quibble, in my view. Peppers has jam packed Anatomy of an Execution with information, as well as notes for further research. Chris Thomas’s case is also very poignant. Peppers and Anderson do a fine job of humanizing Chris Thomas and other people on death row.

There was a time when I was in favor of the death penalty. Gloucester County and its environs are chock full of political conservatives, so it’s hard not to go with the locals, especially when you’re a teenager. I have since become more of a (GASP) liberal, and for the most part, I disagree with capital punishment. It was amazing to me when Virginia abolished capital punishment in 2021. I never thought I would see the day.

Anatomy of an Execution was published in 2009, when the death penalty was still legal in Virginia. I’m sure Peppers was as surprised as I was when it was outlawed, as Peppers makes it very clear how very eager Virginia politicians and lawmakers were to maintain it. Peppers is very thorough as he explains the history of capital punishment in Virginia and the many injustices defendants faced in capital murder cases. I found it all fascinating and even wound up looking up a lot of the people involved in this case. Many of the main players are now deceased.

Thomas’s defense lawyer, Damian T. Horne, and his now wife and then co-counsel, Sydney West, are still living and have moved to New Mexico. Peppers doesn’t seem to think much of Horne or West, neither of whom were experienced enough for the case. But he also points out that back in the early 90s, Virginia only paid $600 total to criminal defense lawyers who represented indigent clients.

Chris Thomas’s original lawyer, the late Benton Pollok, was very experienced and had a passion for criminal law, but he had to be replaced due to a conflicting case he was handling involving a private client willing to pay him for his time. The late Judge John Folkes (from Gloucester) apparently didn’t like Pollok, and would not work with him to reschedule the court appointments. Consequently, Pollok was forced to withdraw from the case. Ironically, Pollok had to sue the his “paying client”, who wasn’t so eager to pay him, after all. If Chris had been able to keep Pollok as his lawyer, it’s likely he’d still be alive today.

I also shook my head as I read some of the letters exchanged between Chris Thomas and Jessica Wiseman. It’s pretty plain that Jessica manipulated the hell out of Chris. No, he shouldn’t have committed murder and he absolutely deserved punishment. But he was just a kid when he committed his crimes, and he did not have good counsel. His story is tragic and poignant. It’s a good reminder of how young people can get caught up in terrible situations that lead to their destruction. It’s crazy to me that Jessica spent less than seven years locked up in juvenile hall. She’s out now, has changed her name, and is free to live her life. Meanwhile, her former boyfriend is long dead, and people are haunted by his memory.

Final thoughts

I highly recommend Anatomy of an Execution to anyone who wants to know the whole story behind the Wiseman murder case out of Middlesex, Virginia. I only wish the type in this book were a bit larger and/or it could be downloaded on Kindle. I’m definitely not sorry I took the time to read this book. I especially enjoyed reading about the former Virginia State Penitentiary. He also writes about the former death row in Mecklenburg, where Chris spent most of his years on death row (and where a different former college roommate’s father used to work). Chris was later moved to Sussex I Prison in Waverly, Virginia, where death row was moved in 1998 and remained until the death penalty in Virginia was abolished in 2021.

Peppers writes about how local eighth graders were allowed to visit the Virginia State Penitentiary when it was empty in 1991. I wonder if Peppers knows that other schools took students there to visit it before it closed. I have mentioned before that my government teacher took our class to the Virginia State Penitentiary in the spring of 1990, before all of the inmates were moved. We saw one of the cell blocks, as well as the death house. The electric chair was still in use at the time. Some of my classmates even sat on it! I think that’s when I started to change my mind about capital punishment. I’m glad I changed my mind.

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law, memories, nostalgia, YouTube

Repost: Our “senior trip” to the Virginia State Pen…

It’s spring, and when I was in high school, that meant taking field trips. When I was a senior in high school, my government teacher, Mr. Eccleston, took us on a trip to Richmond, Virginia. This was something he did every year, although I’m pretty sure our class was the last one to go to the Virginia State Penitentiary. That’s because they closed the “Pen” in 1991, and tore it down. Here’s a repost of my 2013 blog post about my experience visiting Virginia’s old state prison… Meanwhile, I’m still thinking about today’s fresh topic.

Most high school kids go off to some interesting or exotic place when they become seniors.  I guess, in my case, the place my senior class went for the “senior trip” was exotic and interesting enough, though it wasn’t an overnight trip.  My senior year of high school was actually full of interesting field trips, to include a trip to a local medical school, where my biology classmates and I saw cadavers.  We also went caving, and visited the National Zoo in Washington, DC.  I skipped at least three other field trips because I didn’t have the money to go.  But probably the most interesting of all the trips we took was the one that took us to the State Penitentiary in Virginia.

Here’s an interesting talk about the former penitentiary, which was demolished just after our visit in 1990. If this subject interests you, I highly recommend watching this video. The speaker, Dale M. Brumfield, is very engaging, and this is a fascinating subject.

The Virginia State Pen was a very old structure that had received its first prisoners in 1800.  If you click the link, you can see some photos of the place, which was eventually demolished.  It sat next to the James River in downtown Richmond, Virginia. 

In the spring of 1990, when we had our field trip, the Pen was about to be closed down.  There were still inmates there when we came to visit the place.  I remember how my classmates and I were each frisked, then shown into this huge cell block that had several tiers of tiny cells, which you can see in the featured photo.  The place was painted light blue and there was a smell of human filth, sweat, and detergent in the air.  The building was obviously very antiquated and unpleasant.  It definitely needed to be torn down or renovated.

Gazing up, I could see the huge windows allowed birds to come in.  They flew near the ceiling and probably mocked the inmates with their ability to come and go at will.  On the floor, I spied a dead mouse that looked like it had been there for awhile.  A heavily muscled guy with a mullet wore a wide leather belt with a set of handcuffs prominently displayed in a case as he led us through the facility.  He didn’t wear a uniform, though he obviously worked at the prison.

The inmates were in a different part of the prison when we visited.  I remember looking at the first big cell block, which was apparently vacated as inmates were transferred to other facilities.  We also visited death row, which had also been vacated.  Some inmates were in a yard nearby as we made our way to the death house.  They shouted and jeered at us.  I remember the death row cells were a whole lot larger than the ones in the cell block.  They had bars all around them and a lone television set was mounted on a pole that would have allowed all of the inmates to watch it.

At the end of the hall was the electric chair, which Virginia used to execute a lot of men until lethal injection became the preferred way to put condemned people to death.  Several of my classmates sat on the big oak chair, outfitted with heavy leather straps with big metal buckles.  I remember one teacher actually pretended to strap a couple of students in.  Back then, it was kind of a joke, but today, it seems kind of inappropriate and not that funny.  Virginia is a notorious death penalty state.  (ETA: Thanks to former Governor Ralph Northam, the death penalty was abolished in Virginia last year. I never thought I’d see the day.)

I remember after we saw the penitentiary, we went to Virginia Commonwealth University for lunch.  Two of my sisters are VCU graduates, so I was somewhat familiar with the place.  By then, I knew I was headed to Longwood for college. 

It was an eerie day… and probably the day that I first started to have ambivalent feelings about the death penalty.  

Edited to add in 2022: In his amazing talk in the above video, Dale Brumfield, talks about the kinds of crimes that would land people in the penitentiary. At one point, he talks about how Black men could be arrested and imprisoned for being caught on someone else’s property. They could get up to ten years for just appearing to LOOK like they were going to commit theft. As he was talking about that, I couldn’t help but think about the Ahmaud Arbery case, and how he was gunned down by three White men who thought he was a thief. It’s so sad that we haven’t evolved much since the early days of the Virginia Penitentiary’s history.

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