Roanoke College professor releases book about the death penalty system

SALEM, Va. - Dr. Todd C. Peppers, associate professor of public affairs, has coauthored a newly released book, The Anatomy of an Execution: The Life and Death of Douglas Christopher Thomas (Northeastern University Press, 2009). The work is an examination of the modern death penalty system and a juvenile whose actions landed him in that system, ultimately to be executed.

Peppers collaborated with Laura Trevvett Anderson, the former high school teacher of Chris Thomas, who was convicted of murdering his girlfriend's parents in 1990. At the time of the slayings, Thomas was just 17 years old. The murders took place in Middlesex County, Virginia, and both the trial and Thomas's execution received extensive media coverage in Virginia. Anderson corresponded with her former pupil while he was on death row and became his spiritual advisor. Anderson ministered to Thomas during his final hours in the death house, witnessed his execution and presided at his funeral.

Peppers met Anderson when she came to Roanoke College in 2003 as a guest speaker for a death penalty seminar that he was teaching. They became friends and, later, coauthors. Peppers describes the book as "the story of the life and death of Chris Thomas...and of Laura Anderson...who found herself unwillingly thrust into the grimmest corners of our criminal justice system."

Peppers does not dispute Thomas's guilt; instead, he and Anderson investigate the controversial handling of the legal case. Thomas was one of the last juvenile offenders to be put to death before the Supreme Court ruled that the execution of juveniles constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Peppers writes that he and Anderson use Thomas's story as "a case study by which to highlight and explore such...questions as the execution of minors, the quality of legal defense provided by court-appointed counsel, the trial and appeals process of capital cases, the prison conditions on death row, the methods of execution and the role of spiritual advisors."

Death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, author of the critically acclaimed Dead Man Walking, makes the following observation about this new book by Peppers and Anderson: "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. 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. I urge you to read this hauntingly personal book."

Recent Roanoke graduate Beth See '09 worked with Peppers and Anderson under the auspices of the College's four-year Undergraduate Research Assistance Program. She conducted research, interviewed witnesses, and located and analyzed thousands of documents, work that Peppers called "invaluable." Working on the project sparked Beth's interested in fundamental issues of law and justice, and she is now a first-year law student at George Mason University.

Roanoke College, an independent, co-educational, four-year liberal arts college in Salem, Virginia, combines firsthand learning with valuable personal connections in a classic, undergraduate setting. Roanoke prepares students for their futures through its commitment to providing a true classic college experience. Roanoke is one of just 276 colleges nationwide with a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation's oldest and most prestigious honor society. The Princeton Review names Roanoke as one of the "best in the Southeast."

For additional information, call the Roanoke College Public Relations Office at (540) 375-2282.

Released: December 15, 2009
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