Law Professor’s New Book Chronicles Execution of Juvenile Offender

Lexington, VA • Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Chris Thomas with his mother shortly after he arrived on death row in 1991.

Anatomy of an Execution is available now from Northeastern University Press.
When Chris Thomas was executed by the Commonwealth of Virginia in January 2000 for a brutal double murder he committed at the age of 17, he became one of the last juvenile offenders put to death before the U.S Supreme Court ruled that the execution of juveniles constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

In Anatomy of an Execution, law professor Todd C. Peppers and coauthor Laura Anderson tell the entire story of Chris Thomas. The book provides insight into the legal workings of the modern death penalty system and also offers a glimpse of a young, condemned man's life before and after the crime.

Peppers, who also teaches at Roanoke College, became interested in the case several years ago when Anderson addressed a senior seminar that focused on the death penalty. Anderson was one of Thomas's high school teachers, and after the crime, she became his spiritual advisor and witnessed his execution.

"I was profoundly moved by Laura's account of Chris Thomas's life, crimes, incarceration, and execution," says Peppers. "Over time, we developed the idea for a book the merged her personal experience with an exploration of multiple aspects of the death penalty, such as the use of poorly trained, court appointed counsel in death penalty cases and the difficulty of obtaining a full and fair appellate review of a capital case."

The four-year project took the authors to the murder site, to the courthouse where the trial took place, and to the graves of Chris Thomas and his victims. They spent hours examining the voluminous trial and appellate records and interviewed friends, family members, and former attorneys involved in the case.  The result is a book that well-known death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean calls "hauntingly personal."

"Justice Harry Blackmun once said in a capital case the trial is the main event, but Anatomy of an Execution shows Chris Thomas's trial was nothing more than a momentary pause on the way to his execution," says Prejean. "It wasn't only the system and the players in it that let down Chris Thomas, the book also demonstrates that again and again the adults who might have prevented the tragedy of the murders and the execution leave this young boy to grieve alone and find his own way in a world he doesn't know or understand."

Anatomy of an Execution: The Life and Death of Douglas Christopher Thomas is available now from Northeastern University Press.

Todd C. Peppers is an associate professor in the Department of Public Affairs at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, and a lecturer in law at Washington and Lee University School of Law in Lexington, Virginia. He is the author of Courtiers of the Marble Palace: The Rise and Influence of the Supreme Court Law Clerk.

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