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Inmate Consoles Family as He Awaits Execution

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thomas Thompson, awaiting execution for the 1981 rape and murder of a young Orange County woman, consoled friends and family and ate a last meal Monday as defense lawyers fought to save his life.

Thompson, 43, was scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection at 12:01 today in the converted gas chamber at San Quentin prison.

His attorneys filed a final plea Monday afternoon with the U.S. Supreme Court. But they were not optimistic that the high court, which has twice rejected Thompson’s appeals in the last year, would step in to block the execution.

Thompson was convicted of raping and killing Ginger Fleischli, 20, in Laguna Beach, but has argued since his arrest in Mexico that he did not commit the crimes.

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He spent his final hours visiting with family, friends and his attorneys after a reportedly sleepless night in a holding cell. Greg Long, one of Thompson’s appellate lawyers, said the convicted killer spent more time helping loved ones than being consoled.

“Tom is showing more concern about other people than about himself,” Long said. “He told me that we did everything we could [and that] there should be no second-guessing.”

Thompson was to be moved a few hours before the execution to a special death-watch cell for a final meal of Alaskan king crab legs with melted butter, spinach salad, Mandarin-style spare ribs, pork fried rice, a chocolate sundae and a six-pack of cola.

He then was to be isolated with his spiritual advisor, a nondenominational minister who works with many death row inmates.

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His execution would end a 17-year fight waged in the courts and the media over Thompson’s fate. On two occasions in recent years his death sentence was reversed, only to be reinstated by a higher court.

Nearly lost in the tumult were the victim and her family, who were bewildered by the delays that kept Thompson out of the death chamber.

“I’ll be happy to have justice finally served,” Jack Fleischli, the victim’s older brother, said. “The loss of a loved one just won’t go away. Every day that justice isn’t served is another day where you feel physically assaulted.

“This guy living in prison for 17 years, that’s not punishment. He’s escaped punishment up to this point.”

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Unlike the four men who preceded him into the death chamber since executions resumed in California six years ago, Thompson has stuck steadfastly to claims of innocence.

He doggedly maintained that after an evening of bar-hopping and smoking hashish, he and Fleischli had consensual sex in an oceanfront Laguna Beach apartment, after which he passed out, slept until morning and never saw her again.

Prosecutors, however, said that evidence against Thompson was overwhelming. They say that he killed Fleischli to keep her from reporting the rape and spoiling a wild scheme Thompson had to travel to Southeast Asia to smuggle refugees.

Fleischli’s body was discovered a few days later, partially buried in a shallow grave amid a grove of trees at an Irvine nursery. Her shirt and bra had been cut open, and she was wrapped in a cocoon of duct tape, a sleeping bag, a blanket and rope. She had been stabbed five times in the right ear.

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The peculiarities of the case helped sow doubts about Thompson’s guilt, particularly among death penalty opponents. They mounted an aggressive publicity campaign on his behalf, enlisting sympathizers ranging from Hollywood stars to former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles.

Defense Blamed Former Boyfriend

Although an Orange County jury took just a few hours to convict Thompson, his attorneys contend that David Leitch, a former boyfriend of Fleischli, was the real murderer.

Physical evidence linked Leitch to the crime--a footprint was found near Fleischli’s body and cloth fibers were found in the trunk of his car. Leitch told investigators that Thompson forced him at gunpoint to help dispose of the body.

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Thompson had no previous criminal record, but Leitch had a history of violent behavior and had threatened Fleischli a few weeks before the murder. Leitch was tried separately, convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. He is now eligible for parole.

During the trial, an investigator said an injury to Fleischli’s wrist appeared to be from the locking mechanism of handcuffs. Thompson was arrested in Mexico with handcuffs in his possession.

But a defense pathologist suggested that the mark on Fleischli’s wrist was not caused by a handcuff. In addition, Thompson’s appellate attorneys argued that the physical evidence of rape was not compelling.

His attorneys also say two jailhouse informants who testified against Thompson were unreliable, at best. One was known to trade information for favorable treatment. The other testified that Thompson bragged of stabbing Fleischli in the neck and upper torso, erroneous details that had been reported in a newspaper.

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But mostly, the defense team battered the performance of Thompson’s trial attorney, attacking his reluctance to aggressively fight the charge of rape, the special-circumstance crime that combined with the murder conviction to put Thompson on death row.

In recent months, Thompson’s backers put a spotlight on testimony from Leitch at a 1995 parole hearing suggesting that he saw Fleischli and Thompson having consensual sex on the night of the murder.

Prosecutors, however, raised profound suspicions about Leitch’s credibility, noting conflicting stories that he told at other parole hearings. They noted that Leitch’s report didn’t fit with Thompson’s testimony that he had sex with Fleischli in bed, not on the floor. And they surmised that if Leitch really had seen such a scene, Fleischli might have been gagged, handcuffed or even dead at the time.

In the same parole hearing, Leitch is quoted as theorizing that Thompson raped Fleischli and then killed her.

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Prosecutors Note Abundant Evidence

Prosecutors say that evidence of Thompson’s guilt was overwhelming and ridiculed his assertion that he slept through Fleischli’s murder. They noted that Fleischli’s blood soaked through the carpet just a few feet from where Thompson says he slept.

Evidence of rape abounded, they said. Fleischli’s wrists and ankles were bruised as if they had been restrained. Her mouth was taped shut with duct tape. Her pants were unbuttoned, her underwear was gone.

Psychologists said Thompson was bright, but had a vivid fantasy life, the product of a difficult childhood shadowed by a disciplinarian stepfather. One of the psychologists called Thompson a “liar of the first magnitude” who made it “a way of life.” For Thompson, fabrication “became an exciting thing.”

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Thompson’s family said he was gentle and shied away from conflict. He was a drum major in high school and a fairly successful student, getting in trouble just once for cutting class.

He served honorably in the Army and spent time in college. He was employed for a while by a fire department as a photographer. At the time of the murder, he worked as a boat repairman.

Like many capital punishment cases, Thompson’s pinballed through the state and federal court system.

In 1995, a conservative U.S. district judge appointed by President Ronald Reagan threw out the rape conviction and death penalty, concluding that Thompson’s lawyer had indeed been inadequate. The case against Thompson, he said, gave him “an unsettling feeling.”

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But scarcely a year later, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the death sentence, saying that the lawyer’s deficiencies during the trial were not enough to make a difference against the prosecution’s case.

It looked as though Thompson would be executed in August. But just 32 hours before he was to die, a special 11-judge panel of the 9th Circuit rushed in to block the execution, citing a procedural foul-up and saying that grave doubts existed about Thompson’s guilt.

But in April, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the 9th Circuit, stating that evidence against Thompson was too overwhelming to deny the state its right to an execution.

In a last-gasp effort to save their client, Thompson’s attorneys again returned to the appellate court in the hope that Leitch’s statements about seeing consensual sex would sway the justices. But late Saturday evening, another 11-judge panel of the court announced that it would not stand in the way of Thompson’s execution.

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Times staff writers Esther Schrader, Thao Hua and Geoff Boucher contributed to this story.

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To get an audio report from a Times staff writer assigned to view the execution, go to The Times’ Web site: https://www.latimes.com/execution

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