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After 43 Years on Death Row, a Serial Killer Faces Execution

After 43 Years on Death Row, a Serial Killer Faces Execution...
embarrassed to the bone senate
  02/27/24


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Date: February 27th, 2024 4:22 AM
Author: embarrassed to the bone senate

After 43 Years on Death Row, a Serial Killer Faces Execution

Decadeslong waits for capital punishment have become common, but 73-year-old Thomas Creech’s case is particularly extreme

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BOISE, Idaho—Serial killer Thomas Creech was first sentenced to death in 1976, before Jimmy Carter became president and disco hit its peak.

On Wednesday, the 73-year-old is set to be executed after one of the longest waits of anyone currently on death row. His case is an extreme example of a capital punishment system in which decadeslong delays have become so common that senior citizens are being punished for crimes they committed as young adults.

“In one sense, it’s pretty hard to deal with, but I’m holding my head up,” Creech said by phone from his cell. “Of course, my faith plays into anything I do. I don’t think anyone could go through this for 50 years and not believe in God.”

Creech has been on death row for a total of 43 years, excluding a short period in which his sentence was reduced to life imprisonment.

Prosecutors and relatives of his victims say his execution is long overdue.

“Thomas Creech is a manipulative serial killer who only values his own life and continues to believe he should never pay the price for his horrific crimes,” said Brandi Jensen, the daughter of a man Creech killed. “It is time to end this 43 year long nightmare.”

The average time people spent on death row before execution has been increasing since the death penalty was made legal again in 1976. It has recently hovered around 20 years, according to Justice Department data. 

Researchers attribute the delays, in part, to lengthier appeals and changes in laws and technology that have led many cases to be re-examined and, in some cases, sentences overturned.

Prisoners over age 60 now comprise a quarter of the state-level death row population of about 2,300. Ohio officials called off the execution of a physically debilitated 69-year-old in 2017 because they couldn’t find a vein. The inmate, Alva Campbell, died of a terminal illness before his next scheduled execution in 2019.

Deborah Czuba, supervising attorney of the federal public defender’s office in Boise, which represents Creech, said she has two other elderly clients facing capital punishment—one an 80-year-old in California and the other a 76-year-old in Nevada. “Looking at these inmates, it’s hard to imagine what’s the point in executing them anymore,” Czuba said.

Death penalty supporters say increasingly long waits undermine the effectiveness of the sentence and deny justice to victims. “Unfortunately, courts have allowed these cases to stretch out indefinitely,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a victims-rights nonprofit.

The number of people sentenced to death each year in the 27 states where the penalty is legal has been falling for the past two decades, but it still far outnumbers the dozen or so executions that take place annually.

Five murders in three states

Creech grew up in Ohio, where he said his father was physically abusive and an aunt and uncle sexually molested him. He headed for the West in the 1970s and committed two murders in California and Oregon before he was arrested in Idaho in 1974 for killing two people there. He attributes all four crimes to fits of rage while high on amphetamines and other drugs.

His death sentence was commuted to life in 1979, but he was sent back to death row in 1983 after beating fellow inmate David Dale Jensen, Brandi Jensen’s father, to death.

Creech’s case has taken particularly long in part because the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991 found his original death sentence unconstitutional, which required the sentencing process to begin again. He has made numerous unsuccessful appeals, including to state courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. Documents from all the cases fill up 34 boxes in his lawyer’s office.

Death penalty critics say long stretches in custody, often in isolation with as little as one hour a day outside, cause mental suffering for prisoners and can lead to them bonding with guards, who experience their own pain when the executions finally occur. 

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Current and former prison employees who worked closely with Creech have filed declarations with Idaho’s pardons and parole commission recommending the state spare his life. 

Robert Newhouse, a retired state judge who sentenced Creech for the Jensen murder, wrote his own declaration in which he said Creech no longer deserves to die because he has been locked up so long. “An execution now would just be an act of vengeance,” he said.

However, Ada County Deputy Prosecutor Jill Longhurst told the commission Creech remains a threat and should be executed because he “kills almost on whims with little regard or interest in the consequences.”

The commission in January reached a 3-3 deadlock in Creech’s case, which means the execution will proceed.

The following day, a death warrant was issued—the 12th against Creech in four decades—setting his execution by lethal injection for Feb. 28. He was then taken from a cell block he shared with five other death row inmates to a facility called the “death house,” where he was shown the room where he will be killed by lethal injection. 

“They pointed at the window where my wife would be sitting,” Creech said of the visit. “I could picture her sitting there and I broke down and cried like a baby.”

Marriage by phone

Creech married his wife, LeAnn Creech, in 1998 in a ceremony conducted via speakerphone. They were introduced by her son, a guard in Creech’s prison. During their 28-year relationship, they have been allowed only brief physical embraces.

“I knew he was really damaged, but he was trying to overcome his past,” LeAnn said from her mobile home in Boise, leafing through a scrapbook of photos of the couple during prison visits.

Though he doesn’t dispute his guilt in five murders, Creech said he wants to live in prison until his natural death because he began a personal transformation in 1992, which included re-embracing his childhood Christian faith. “I really started thinking and realized how much pain I had inflicted,” Creech said. “So I started doing things to help others.”

He has mentored younger inmates, using his experience to try to dissuade them from using drugs or committing violence. He wrote poems to guards, including one in memory of a spouse who had died.

Creech’s only chances of avoiding death now are last-minute procedural motions or a commutation by Idaho Gov. Brad Little. The Republican has said he won’t intervene. 

Creech is spending what may be his final days in long talks with his wife and visits with Czuba and her colleagues, as well as a pastor he prays with. For his last meal, he selected a dish of butter pecan ice cream, nothing more. 

In January, Creech penned a poem addressed to himself as a boy. It contains advice to his younger self, including the lines:

Always have honor and give your respect,

To all the people around you that you know—

For truly I tell you that sooner or later,

You will reap just what you sow.

Write to Jim Carlton at Jim.Carlton@wsj.com

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