Judge Jim Goodpaster wept the day he sentenced Steven Ray Thacker to die.
Mr. Goodpaster, who at the time was serving as judge for the 12th Judicial District of Oklahoma, would later describe the task of handing down the death penalty as one of the most difficult experiences of his entire life.
“It’s not something I took very lightly,” he said. “Not at all. It’s also not an experience I will soon forget.”
If ever there were a clear-cut case for the death penalty, it would have been Steven Ray Thacker.
On the surface, it should have been an easy decision for the 61-year-old veteran of the judicial bench. After all, Mr. Thacker had already admitted to killing 25-year-old Laci Dawn Hill and two others during an 11-day crime spree spanning three different states.
It began just two days before Christmas 1999 when Mr. Thacker answered a classified ad posted by a Tulsa-area couple trying to sell a pool table. He showed up under the guise of looking over the table and instead kidnapped Laci and stole her credit cards which he later used to buy Christmas presents for his family.
After keeping her bound and gagged for several days, Mr. Thacker raped, choked, and then stabbed his 103-pound victim repeatedly before burying her body under a pile of old mattresses in a remotely-located dilapidated cabin.
When video footage from the local WalMart store surfaced showing Mr. Thacker using the stolen credit cards, he panicked and fled the area to neighboring Missouri, where he killed a 24-year-old man and stole his credit cards to fund his escape. From there, it was on to Tennessee, where he killed another innocent victim before finally being apprehended.
Once he was in custody, the legal wrangling began between the three states began as they argued about who would get to put him on trial first and which state would ultimately execute him.
A deal was struck and Oklahoma “won.”
First, Mr. Thacker was put on trial in Tennessee where he was convicted of killing 52-year-old Ray Patterson and sentenced to die. Next, the State of Missouri convicted him in the death of 24-year-old Forrest Boyd and handed down a life sentence before sending him back to Oklahoma to stand trial for the death of Laci Dawn Hill.
Just days before the trial was scheduled to begin in Oklahoma, Mr. Thacker entered a guilty plea and without a jury to do the dirty work, it was up to Judge Goodpaster to preside over a three-day sentencing hearing. Ultimately it would be up to him to decide the killer’s fate.
During the three-day sentencing hearing, Judge Goodpaster heard from two different psychiatrists who testified that Mr. Thacker had been diagnosed early in life with bipolar disorder. As is often the case for people who suffer from severe mental illness, Mr. Thacker would routinely take it upon himself to quit taking his medication when he was feeling well. Of course, that often had terrible repercussions – as was the case when he killed Mrs. Hill and the others.
During the hearing, Judge Goodpaster also heard from law enforcement investigators who testified that Mr. Thacker had admitted to killing Mrs. Hill and he had acknowledged to them that the only reason he did so was to avoid getting caught for stealing her credit cards. In Oklahoma, taking another person’s life to prevent prosecution of another crime is grounds for the death penalty.
In addition to doctors and police detectives, Judge Goodpaster also heard from Laci Hill’s brother, who described his sister as a “kind, caring woman who loved her family very much.”
For the most part, Mr. Thacker showed very little emotion during the testimony – only breaking down when his elderly mother took the witness stand to plead for her son’s life.
After hearing the testimony from both sides, Judge Goodpaster stood and retreated into his chamber to make a decision.
Those of us who sat sat through all three days of testimony, had been led through a terrifying journey through the valley of the shadow of death as we heard the horrific details of what Mr. Thacker had done. It was now solely up to the judge to determine if the death penalty should be handed down.
As if that burden wasn’t heavy enough, Judge Goodpaster was well aware that if he sentenced Mr. Thacker to die, it would be the first such instance in Mayes County history.
It didn’t take him long to make a decision.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on Judge Goodpaster’s face when he walked back into the courtroom and sat down. Somehow, it looked as though he had aged 20 years.
Although his eyes were wide and his voice strong, I could tell the veteran judge was struggling to find the words.
“It gives me no personal joy...”
“...the evidence overwhelmingly proved...”
“...Steven Ray Thacker...”
“...is sentenced to die by lethal injection...”
The victim’s family cheered and Mr. Thacker’s head fell into his hands. The judge said nothing more as he stood and exited the room. Later, he would admit to me that he returned to his office and wept.
As the courtroom emptied and the victim’s family began to leave, her brother turned back towards Mr. Thacker and shouted out to the man who had killed his sister.
“I hope you rot in hell,” he cried out. “I’ll be there the day you die.”
On Tuesday, March 12, 2013, after more than 11 years of being on Death Row, Laci Dawn Hill’s brother got his wish.
At least part of it.
After Mr. Thacker’s last meal which consisted of a large meat lover’s pizza, a small bag of peanut M&M’s, and an A&W root beer, he was led to the execution chamber by his pastor and prison officials and was strapped onto a hospital gurney.
At 6:02 p.m., the blinds to the witness room were opened and Mr. Thacker turned toward the window and gave his last statement.
He apologized to the victims’ families and asked for their forgiveness, noting first that he didn’t deserve their mercy.
“But as God has forgiven me, I hope you will forgive me for the pain I have caused. Jesus Christ died for my sins. God has forgiven me and eternity in heaven is mine.”
A few minutes larer, he was dead.
Later, his pastor would tell reporters that Steven had found his salvation at some point during the three years leading up to his 2002 sentencing. And for the 210 million Americans who identify as Christians, that’s all it takes.
According to the Book of John, which many consider to contain perhaps the most important verse in the Bible, Jesus reminded Nicodemus that “everyone who believes may have eternal life.”
And as difficult as it may be for some Christians to accept, that even applies to cold-blooded killers like Steven Ray Thacker.
In that moment when the prison worker sent a lethal dose of phenobarbital into Mr. Thacker’s bloodstream, the convicted rapist, kidnapper, and triple murderer picked up a one-way ticket to Gloryland.
If we are to believe what the Bible says is true, then that cold-blooded killer sat with Jesus himself that evening along with the rest of the Heavenly Host.
Ironically enough, that group almost assuredly now includes Judge James Goodpaster, who died unexpectedly in 2011 at the age of 70 a few short years after retiring from the bench. To this day, his friends are convinced that his ruling in Oklahoma v. Thacker was a contributing factor.
In reality, most Christians fall short of God’s expectations each and every day, but this powerful example of faith, redemption, and love is something worth remembering.
During this Easter season, Christians worldwide will mourn the death of Christ while also celebrating the gift He gave them through it. If God can accept someone like Steven Ray Thacker into His kingdom with open arms, perhaps they shouldn’t be so hard on themselves – or others – when they fall short of our expectations.
Jim Goodpaster may or may not have struggled with his decision that fateful day, but hopefully he found solace knowing that it wasn’t him who ultimately sealed Mr. Thacker’s fate.
That was done when the admitted killer dropped to his knees in a cold, damp prison cell and asked the Lord to forgive him for all of the wicked for which he had done.
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