A military jury at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station on Tuesday sentenced a Marine sergeant to death for fatally 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,” 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 firmly at attention as the sentence was read. Afterward, he went into a room filled with relatives and, family members said, told his 4-year-old daughter, Mary, that he was going away to work for a long time.
Thomas’ current wife, Linda, who he married shortly after the murder and who is about to give birth to their first child, was also in the courtroom.
It took the military panel of four enlisted men and five officers--the same jury that convicted Thomas last Thursday--less than six hours to reach a unanimous decision to sentence Thomas to death. The military’s form of execution is by injection.
The case will be automatically appealed to Maj. Gen. Donald E. P. Miller, commanding general of the third Marine Aircraft Wing, and then to a panel of judges at the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Military Review. Thomas then may appeal the panel’s findings to the Court of Military Appeals and after that to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case against Thomas was built largely on the testimony of his admitted accomplice, Lance Cpl. Mitchael Nelson. Nelson, 24, who was granted immunity for his testimony, said he watched Thomas beat his wife, Melinda Jean Thomas, to death as she lay in bed on the night of Dec. 9, 1987.
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 near the Orange County line.
There, Nelson said, the two strapped the body into the Suzuki’s driver’s seat and sent the vehicle hurtling over a 200-foot cliff. When the vehicle failed to ignite, Nelson said, he went down into the ravine and set it on fire.
Defense attorney Maj. Mark Stevens maintained that Nelson was the killer.
“There is a part of me that wants him (Thomas) to rot the rest of his of life,” Melinda Thomas’ mother, Gwen Bell, 47, 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.”
“Why this is happening to him only God knows,” Thomas’ mother, Mary, 58, said. “But we are not done fighting.”