A military jury sentenced an El Toro Marine to death Tuesday for bludgeoning his pregnant, 24-year-old wife with a tire iron, then trying to disguise the murder in a dramatic car crash to collect $50,000 in life insurance.
“Sgt. Joseph L. Thomas . . . this court-martial sentences you to be put to death,” the jury foreman, Lt. Col. R.C. Kurth, said as a gasp went up in the courtroom, along with a piercing cry from Thomas’ first wife, Muriel. “May God have mercy on us all.”
Thomas, 28, stood at attention without flinching as the sentence was read at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. Afterward, he went into a room filled with the shrieks of his first and third wives and, according to family members, told his 4-year-old daughter, Mary, that he was going away to work for a long time.
It took the military panel of four enlisted men and five officers less than 6 hours to reach a unanimous decision to sentence Thomas to death. The same jury deliberated 7 hours before convicting him last Thursday of premeditated murder. The military’s form of execution is by injection.
The case will automatically be appealed to Maj. Gen. Donald E.P. Miller, commanding general of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, and then to a panel of judges at the Navy/Marine Corps Court of Military Review. Thomas may then appeal the panel’s findings to the Court of Military Appeals. After that, he may petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case.
If Thomas loses all of the appeals, the death sentence still requires the signature of the President. The appeals process could take years.
Although the prosecution called about 50 witnesses in the monthlong trial, the case against Thomas was built largely on the testimony of his admitted accomplice, Lance Cpl. Mitchael Nelson. Nelson, 24, who was granted immunity in return for his testimony, said he watched Thomas beat his second wife, Melinda Jean Thomas, to death as she lay on their water bed in their apartment at the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station. Melinda Thomas was 4 months pregnant when she died.
Lonely Stretch of Highway
Nelson said he and Thomas bundled the body into the trunk of a rental car and drove that car and the couple’s Suzuki Samurai to a lonely stretch of Ortega Highway just past the Orange County line.
There, Nelson said, they strapped the body into the Suzuki’s driver’s seat and sent the car hurtling over a 200-foot cliff. When the car failed to ignite, Nelson said, he climbed into the ravine and set it on fire. A hunter discovered the burning car Dec. 10, 1987.
The Riverside County coroner’s office ruled Melinda Thomas’ death a suicide, which prevented Thomas from collecting $50,000 in life insurance. A murder investigation was launched months later when Thomas began contradicting himself in routine, follow-up interviews with Naval Investigative Service agents.
In early April, Navy investigators arrested Nelson in his Santa Ana apartment on suspicion of murder. He quickly accepted immunity in return for testimony against Thomas.
By then, Thomas had married his third wife, Linda, whom he met in January, shortly after his second wife’s death. Linda Thomas is now 9 months pregnant.
The military has not executed anyone since 1961, when Army Pvt. John A. Bennett was hanged for raping an 11-year-old girl in Austria. Three servicemen, two Army soldiers and a Marine await execution at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan. All of them have appealed their sentences.
After the sentencing, Melinda Thomas’ mother, Gwen Bell, 47, said she felt ambivalent about the penalty.
“There is a part of me that wants him to rot the rest of his life,” she said. “But there’s also a part of me that wants him dead. I feel really bad for his family and for his children. But I feel he got what’s coming to him.”
Bell said she has not seen Thomas outside the courtroom since shortly before his arrest April 5. Since then, she said, he has written to her once from the brig at Camp Pendleton, asking his former mother-in-law to visit him and bring some of her potato salad.
Thomas’ father said he agrees with his son’s defense attorney, who implied in court that Nelson was the real killer.
“He gave four different stories,” said Raymond Lee Thomas Sr., 81, alluding to disparities in Nelson’s testimony during the trial. Nelson first testified that he only heard Thomas beat his wife to death. Later he said he saw it.
Thomas’ mother, Mary, 58, said that her son is innocent and that the family will appeal the case as far as possible.
“Why this is happening to him only God knows,” she said. “But we are not done fighting.”