Death in the afternoon

A difficult life: From childhood, Wayne Tompkins never had it easy

Old Sparky: A brief history of Florida's electric chair

There's something captivating about the expression of a man who knows he's about to die but can't do anything about it; it's a mixture of fear and determined stoicism. He chokes back tears and takes deep, heavy breaths, as if he's trying to suck all of the oxygen from the room.

On Feb. 11, I was one of 28 witnesses who crowded into the Florida State Prison's inelegantly named "death chamber" to watch inmate No. 099350, Wayne Tompkins, breathe his last `see "A view to a kill," facing page`. At 6:23 p.m., the curtain that separates the chamber from its adjacent viewing room rose, revealing Tompkins lying horizontally on a gurney, covered from the neck down in a white sheet, staring unflinchingly at the ceiling tiles above.

Tompkins is a burly man with a shaved head. At 51, he's spent nearly half his life — 23 years — on Florida's death row. He's on his fourth death warrant. He has spent more time on death row than all but one person the state has put to death, but his time has run out.

The chamber is a rectangular room of hospital-white walls and one-way mirrors. Above Tompkins' gurney there's a glowing digital clock. There are three men in suits in the room beside Tompkins. One of them picks up a telephone in the corner of the room and has a muted conversation. He hangs up and nods, then takes two steps toward Tompkins and asks him if he'd like to make a final statement.

"I'm good," Tompkins mutters, his voice barely captured by the small microphone hanging from the ceiling.

"The execution phase has begun," the man announces.

This ritual, now in its 67th incarnation in Florida since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in the late 1970s, is a bizarre one-act play of jurisprudence. You expect drama, but there's none. You expect some recognition that the state is taking a man's life, but it's not there. To the spectator, it's almost a non-event, as routine as changing a light bulb. In fact, the most disturbing thing about watching someone die via lethal injection is that it's not disturbing at all. Killing shouldn't be this easy.

Tompkins is set to die for the brutal 1983 slaying of his girlfriend's 15-year-old daughter, Lisa DeCarr, whom he strangled after she refused to have sex with him; then he buried her body under her mother's house. That's the official story.

Tompkins maintained his innocence to the end. And if you probe deeply enough into the 26-year-old case, there's reason to believe him. There's never been any direct evidence linking him to the killing — the state admitted its case was circumstantial. One of the state's key witnesses has said the prosecutor asked him to lie. Another's story is fraught with gaping holes. Recent DNA testing has proven inconclusive. At trial, Tompkins' lawyer didn't call a single witness. He was quickly convicted and sentenced to death. An appeals court later ruled his lawyer's work deficient, but signed off on the verdict and sentence anyway. Wayne Tompkins never had a chance.

Tompkins is no saint. In 1984, he pleaded guilty to two counts of rape. Still, his case raises legitimate questions not just about his guilt, but also a process that dismissed serious allegations of prosecutorial misconduct as tangential and problems with a witness's testimony as inconsequential.

"I truly feel like a failure," says Martin McClain, a lawyer who has handled Tompkins' appeals for the Capital Collateral Regional Counsels, which represents death-row inmates. "Because the case doesn't make any sense, and I couldn't get anyone to listen."

On March 24, 1983, at 5:30 p.m., Barbara DeCarr (now Wallace) told police that her daughter Lisa had run away from their Tampa home "for no apparent reason." According to court records, Lisa had a record as a runaway.

The day before, March 23, Lisa and her friend Kathy Stevens were expelled from school — they were in special classes for emotionally troubled students — after they were caught smoking under a tree and school officials found marijuana in Stevens' purse. Five days after her daughter vanished, Wallace told a missing-child organization that Lisa "may be on drugs and she may be pregnant."

Over the next few months, Wallace received several calls from people who claimed to have seen her daughter. Stevens told her that Lisa had called her from New York. But these tips never amounted to anything.

In May 1984, Wallace checked herself into a mental hospital. While there, she met with Donald Snell, who headed an organization that employed a psychic to find missing children. On June 6, Snell's group searched Wallace's former home (the family moved out a month after Lisa went missing) and found a shallow grave under the front part of the house. They called the police, who turned up a body wrapped in a pink bathrobe with a ligature around its neck. Based on that ligature, the medical examiner ruled the cause of death asphyxiation, though court documents suggest it could also have been used to drag the body, post-mortem, to the grave. In other words, the records suggest that there's no definitive evidence that Lisa was strangled to death.

There was also no way to determine how long the body had been under the house, though records suggest it could have been as few as six or seven months in June 1984.

At Tompkins' trial, Snell testified that he wasn't sure if Wallace knew where the body was before his search, but he "just didn't believe she was telling me the whole truth."

Wallace told Tampa police that Tompkins, her boyfriend, was the last person to see Lisa alive, and he was indicted soon thereafter. In September 1985, he went to trial.

The state's case relied on three witnesses: Wallace, Stevens and Kenneth Turco, a jailhouse informant. Wallace testified that she and Tompkins were at his mother's house helping her pack the day Lisa disappeared. She said that Tompkins went home twice: The first time, he reported that Lisa was on the couch, watching television; the second time, he returned and told Wallace that Lisa had run away. Wallace said she rushed home but couldn't find Lisa. She told investigators that Lisa's pocketbook and pink robe were missing, but that she found her maroon shirt in the laundry. (Tompkins told police in June 1984 that the last time he saw Lisa, she was headed out the back door. He denied saying that she'd run away the day she disappeared.)

In March 1985, after insisting for two years that Lisa had run away, Stevens told prosecutor Mike Benito a remarkably different story.

Stevens said she'd gone to Lisa's house early that morning, and that the two planned to run away together. But Lisa told her friend that she had worked everything out with Wallace the night before. Stevens left, but forgot her purse.

Sometime between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., she returned for the purse. She heard a loud crash from inside the house and when she opened the door found Tompkins on top of Lisa on the couch, trying to take her clothes off. Tompkins told Stevens to get out. Lisa yelled for her to call the cops. (Stevens also testified that there was another man in the room while Tompkins was assaulting Lisa, though his identity has never been uncovered.)

But Stevens didn't call the cops. Instead, she walked to the local convenience store, where she ran into James Davis Jr., Lisa's boyfriend, who was drunk. Stevens said she told Davis what happened, but he shrugged it off. So she kept what she saw to herself, even after Lisa's disappearance. In fact, she even lied to Wallace and told her that Lisa had called her from New York. In court, Stevens explained her behavior by saying, "I figured, you know, she would eventually get it under control, and it just didn't dawn on me."

Stevens also testified that five months before Lisa's disappearance, she'd spent the night at Lisa's house, and Tompkins attempted to hop in bed with them. According to her testimony, Lisa dug her nails into Tompkins, who called her a "bitch and vulgar names," Stevens said.

"Did he say anything else?" the prosecutor asked.

"He said — he looked at me and he said, ‘I'm going to kill you,' and then he looked at Lisa and then he got up, and he looked disgusted and left the room."

During the trial's closing arguments, Benito told the jury, "Her testimony alone … convicts this man." He also used her account to press for the death penalty, since it showed that Tompkins killed her during a sexual assault.

Turco, the state's last witness, sealed Tompkins' fate. In June 1985, he and Tompkins shared a jail cell. Turco said Tompkins confessed to killing Lisa. His version of events so closely aligned with Stevens' that the defense argued, unsuccessfully, that he'd been shown her deposition.

According to Turco's testimony, Tompkins said when he went home that morning he saw Lisa on the couch, watching TV. He "asked her for a shot of pussy." When she refused, he tried to force her. When she kicked him, he strangled her to death. Tompkins panicked because "he didn't know what to do with the body because Barbara would be coming back soon, so he buried the body under the house," Turco testified. Turco said Tompkins admitted to burying some clothes and a purse with the body to make it look like Lisa had run away. Turco said the prosecutor hadn't promised him anything for his testimony but a good word at his upcoming sentencing.

On Sept. 19, 1985, Tompkins was sentenced to death.

There are problems with every story from the state's three witnesses.

The state's case is predicated on the idea that Tompkins was the last person to see Lisa alive, but the missing persons report Wallace filed the day Lisa disappeared seemed to suggest otherwise. According to that report, reproduced in one of Tompkins' legal filings, "`Wallace` stated she last saw Lisa at the listed residence at this listed time," between 1:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. According to the report, Lisa was wearing jeans and a maroon shirt.

"If that's true, the state's case is gone," says McClain, Tompkins' lawyer. Under the state's theory, Lisa was dead by then. The trial judge forbade Tompkins' lawyer at the time from cross-examining Wallace about that police report, McClain says.

(Another of Lisa's friends, Wendy Chancey, reported seeing her get into a car that afternoon. Tompkins' lawyer didn't call her because he didn't think she'd make a good witness. An investigator hired by Tompkins' appellate attorneys described Chancey as "a troubled child who has been through many traumatic experiences, some of which may involve narcotics." Years later, Chancey couldn't recall seeing Lisa that day, or even what Lisa looked like.)

For a year after Lisa disappeared, Wallace wasn't suspicious of Tompkins. The couple maintained what McClain describes as "an on-again-off-again relationship" — according to court documents, Wallace "had three other boyfriends in addition to" Tompkins. According to one of Tompkins' appeals, "It was not until June 1984, after she found out that Wayne was having an affair with another woman, that she told the police of her suspicions that Wayne killed Lisa."

At trial, a police sergeant testified that after the cops found the body — but before they told Wallace about their discovery — she told them she thought Lisa's corpse "was someplace on the property and possibly under the house."

Stevens' testimony has problems too. In April 2002, Tompkins' attorneys tracked down James Davis Jr., Lisa's then-boyfriend whom Stevens claims she saw at the convenience store the morning Lisa vanished. In an affidavit, Davis said that encounter never happened: "The story of Kathy running into me at the store the day Lisa disappeared is not true. If anyone had told me that Wayne was attacking Lisa and she was screaming for someone to call the police, I would have gone directly there. … I never saw Kathy on the morning that Lisa disappeared, nor did Kathy ever tell me that she had just seen Lisa being attacked by Wayne. In fact, the first time I heard of anything having possibly happened to Lisa was when I heard on the radio she was missing."

In 2007, the Florida Supreme Court discounted his affidavit, saying the evidence was "not of such nature that would probably produce an acquittal on retrial."

Both district and appellate courts also discarded Tompkins' claim that Benito, the prosecutor, should have mentioned to the defense that Stevens only came forward after she was allowed to see an incarcerated boyfriend. In the court's judgment, this too wouldn't have made much of a difference to a jury.

In her deposition, Stevens testified that her friend Kimberly Lisenby was with her when she saw Tompkins strangling Lisa. At trial, she changed her story a bit, and said that Lisenby was with her when she returned to the house later that afternoon to get her purse, at which time Tompkins supposedly told her that Lisa had left with her mother. But on Oct. 10, 2008, Lisenby (now Kimberly Quillen) signed an affidavit stating, "In March 1983, I do not remember anyone by the name of Kathy Stevens. … In March 1983, I do not remember anyone by the name Lisa DeCarr. I remember that while attending Middleton Junior High, `there was` a rumor that a body was found under a house."

In November 2008, the Florida Supreme Court ruled, again, that this new evidence wouldn't be enough to convince a jury of Tompkins' innocence, so it denied his appeal for a new trial.

Most troubling, though, are the allegations surrounding the testimony of Turco, the jailhouse snitch. In October 2008, Turco stated that Benito told him to embellish his testimony at Tompkins' trial by saying that Tompkins had confessed to burying a purse with Lisa's body. Benito has denied ever telling Turco what to say at trial.

Once again, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that even if the allegation were true, it wouldn't be enough to overturn Tompkins' conviction. Justice Harry Lee Anstead dissented. "Indeed, if the claim is true, we have a state prosecutor who committed a criminal act in tampering with a witness," he wrote. "Surely, common sense would tell us this is the kind of ‘bombshell' disclosure that could change a jury's entire evaluation of the case."

In appeals, Tompkins' attorneys contend that Turco's entire testimony was a fabrication, but "if asked under oath `Turco said` he would maintain that the trial testimony was true because of his fear that the trial prosecutor, Mike Benito, would retaliate against him."

Although Turco said that Benito didn't promise him anything for his testimony, shortly after the trial the state attorney's office dismissed charges of escaping from jail to which Turco had already pleaded guilty.

"I don't know if he was confused," says Benito, who is now in private practice. "I didn't put words in anyone's mouth."

In an interview a few days after Tompkins' execution, Benito defended the case he prosecuted a quarter-century ago, and ripped on the appellate lawyers whom he says "try to come up with something to buy the guy more time."

"That's the problem with these cases," he says. "They hang around so long. Obviously memories get hazy. … There's no question of the man's guilt."

In response to Orlando Weekly's questions about the case, the Florida attorney general's office released a 12-page "statement of facts" to rebut some of Tompkins' last-ditch appeals. That statement accuses Tompkins' attorneys of launching misleading character attacks against Wallace and Kathy Stevens, and of using snippets of reports of hearsay statements to mislead appellate judges.

"I would point out that this verdict and sentencing has withstood 25 years of litigation," AG's office spokeswoman Sandi Copes writes in an e-mail.

There are 389 men and one woman currently on Florida's death row, many of whom would likely professes their innocence. If the past is a predictor, some of them probably are.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1973 130 death-row inmates have been exonerated nationwide; 22 of them from Florida, more than any other state. But efforts to clear prisoners' names die with them, so there's no telling if — or how many — innocent prisoners have already been executed.

Is Wayne Tompkins is among them? The circumstances surrounding Lisa DeCarr's death may be strange, but there is no affirmative evidence that Tompkins didn't do it. During decades of appeals, Tompkins' lawyers never offered an alternative theory as to who might have killed Lisa.

At first, the Tampa police believed that Lisa's killer also murdered Jessie Albach, a friend of Lisa's whose decomposed body was found in 1984. But the cops apparently dropped that theory after they decided that Tompkins killed Lisa, but couldn't tie him to Albach. So maybe, McClain speculates, Lisa's death was the work of a serial killer.

McClain says it's difficult to finger another culprit "if you're innocent and don't know what happened."

Tompkins' best chance to prove his proclaimed innocence came from DNA testing, which in recent years has exonerated Central Floridians Wilton Dedge and Bill Dillon after decades in prison. But DNA testing wasn't available when Tompkins went to trial. In 2001, he requested testing. The state reported that hair found with the victim's body was missing or had been destroyed.

On Dec. 1, 2008, after narrowly escaping a scheduled October execution, Tompkins filed another motion for DNA testing. On Dec. 15, Gov. Charlie Crist ordered new tests to determine if the dead body actually belonged to Lisa DeCarr. Lisa's body was originally identified not by actual dental records, but by her mother's description of her daughter's teeth. In 1989, according to one of Tompkins' appeals, Benito testified that "other than `Wallace's` description of a strange tooth in her daughter's mouth," there was no basis for the dental identification.

On Jan. 28, the state filed reports showing that, while a "large quantity" of biological material was found, they were unable to extract any DNA sequences. "These reports also demonstrate that in 2001, the state presented false testimony that the hair found with the victim's body was missing and/or had been destroyed," states one of Tompkins' final appeals.

On Feb. 2, Crist rescheduled Tompkins' execution for Feb. 11. On Feb. 10, the Innocence Project of Florida sent Crist a letter pleading for a stay, and seeking time to conduct more tests. "It is unfortunate that, after DNA test results came back inconclusive on all of these items, you reset Mr. Tompkins' execution," wrote executive director Seth Miller. "The facts of the case have not changed. The uncertainty surrounding the identity of the alleged victim that led to the last round of DNA testing still exists."

The AG's office calls the idea that the body isn't Lisa's "ludicrous." The body shared dental features with Lisa; it was buried with her pink bathrobe and jewelry, under her house.

It takes just nine minutes for Tompkins to die. A few minutes later, we file out of the viewing room into two vans, which take us back to the media staging area for a press conference.

On the ride, we pass a white hearse, which will soon carry Tompkins' remains to the county medical examiner's office, where it will be autopsied. After that, his body will be claimed by a family member.

At the press conference, Michelle Hayes, Lisa DeCarr's sister, addresses the media. "We're glad that the long journey is over now," Hayes says. "We feel it was very humane — it was done in a very humane way, and that Lisa can now rest in peace. She has closure. And that's what this day was all about was justice for her, not anybody else but for her."

Next to Hayes, Lisa's brother Harold DeCarr is holding a school-aged portrait of his murdered sister, a beautiful young girl with flowing brown hair and an engaging smile. She would be in her early 40s today.

"It's been a nightmare," Hayes says. "First when she was missing for 15 months, then when we found out she was murdered, then all of this. It never seemed to stop. … There is no closure. We can't get her back."

If the family harbors any doubt about Tompkins' guilt, it's not showing. "I have hated him for so many years," Hayes replies to a reporter's question. "I really have. I've wanted to do it myself, to be honest with you, many, many times. Yes. I guess I still do."

Barbara Wallace, Lisa's mother, steps up to the podium. "I just want to thank everybody who helped bring us to this point," she says, her voice tired and cracking. "What more can you say?"

"Will your life be different from this day forward?" a reporter asks.

"No. It didn't bring her back."

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