Murder defense Scientology Arizona, escape the death penalty

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Murder defense Scientology Arizona, escape the death penalty.

He stands accused of using a hatchet to bludgeon his sister-in-law and her boyfriend to death and setting the house on fire to destroy any evidence. In a bid to escape the death penalty, he is trying a novel defense:

Scientology made him do it.

Kenneth Wayne Thompson is not arguing that Scientology turned him violent in March 2012. But he is saying his belief in the religion of Scientology helps explain his actions. In particular, he says, his devotion to Scientology’s tenets led him on a 24-hour plus drive from his home in rural Missouri to the eventual murder scene in Arizona.

Prosecutors say the marathon drive helps show Thompson committed the crimes with premeditation, an element of the first-degree murder convictions they are seeking. On each, the state of Arizona will ask for the death penalty.

Thompson’s attorneys will argue to the jury that the act was rational, if understood through the lens of Scientology. Thompson felt he needed to rescue a child, a nephew to his wife, because the boy’s spiritual well-being was at risk.

Neither the boy nor his sister were in the house at the time of the killings.

Raising the defense will make the Scientology belief system part of the court case.

Attorneys for Thompson have already subpoenaed records from the Florida-based church. They have also asked for testimony from Scientology experts, including the actress Leah Remini, who has produced documentaries critical of the religion.

The defense has listed the Scientology “tone scale,” a chart that purports to diagram all human emotions,among its evidence.

Potential jurors were asked their thoughts about the religion. Tom Cruise’s name was mentioned during opening arguments.

Prosecutors had tried to get the judge to disallow the Scientology defense. In a brief filed before the trial began, the state said followers of any religion believe the theology to varying degree and it would not be clear to what extent Thompson hewed to Scientology’s.

Prosecutors also warned that the trial risked veering down a Scientology rabbit hole.

“Presentation of evidence would have to be proceeded by a complex explanation of exactly what…followers of Scientology believe,” prosecutors wrote in a March 2018 argument to the court.

Yavapai Superior Court Judge Patricia Trebesch, who is presiding over the proceedings, ruled in January that the Scientology defense would be allowed.

The role of a religion
Scientology was developed in the 1950s by L. Ron Hubbard, then a science fiction writer. The first meetings of Scientologists were held at Hubbard’s home at the base of Camelback Mountain in Phoenix.

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The religion is based on humans being able to achieve spiritual growth by walking a set path and reaching particular milestones. Critics of the religion say those milestones come with a hefty price tag that involve buying books and paying for sessions of introspection called auditing.

In opening arguments last week in Prescott, Kenneth Thompson’s defense attorney, Robert Gundacker, asked the jury to see the events that led to the killings through the eyes of Thompson, a devoted Scientologist.

Thompson became a Scientologist as a child, the attorney said, following his mother’s marriage to a devotee.

Gundacker told the jury that Thompson had heard that his wife’s nephew was undergoing mental health-related treatment, which was anathema to his beliefs as a Scientologist.

“One of the central tenets, and it was core to the whole wider system of beliefs, is that psychology is evil, probably the most evil thing on planet earth,” Gundacker told jurors. “Think back to Tom Cruise.”

Cruise, the movie actor and Scientologist, famously railed against psychology during an interview on NBC’s “Today” show in 2005.

Thompson, as a Scientologist, would have thought that the medication the child was being given subjected him to irreparable harm, his attorney said. In court motions, his defense team has said Thompson thought the child’s eternal soul was at risk.

“This is Kenny’s mindset,” Gundacker said.

Once at the home, his attorney argued, Thompson acted in the heat of passion in killing the victims, not with a murderous intent. Gundacker asked the jury to eventually return a verdict of manslaughter, not first-degree murder.

Prosecutors presented a different theory of the case. Yavapai Deputy County Attorney Steve Young told jurors they would see evidence that showed Thompson’s intent, including his marathon drive, his purchases of the hatchet and knife used in the killings and his attempts to cover his tracks by burning the house and telling false stories to police.

Prosecutors did not mention Scientology at all.

Psychology is ‘evil and a scam’
Gundacker did not dispute the bare facts of the case. At times, it seemed as if his argument could be used by the prosecution.

Thompson drove from his rural Missouri home to Arizona in a little more than a day. He entered the Prescott Valley home of his sister-in-law and her boyfriend and killed them both, using a hatchet and a knife he had purchased that morning.

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He poured acid over the bodies and used flares and diesel fuel to set the house on fire. He got back on the freeway and headed east toward Missouri.

But all of this, Gundacker said, sprang from an innocent motive. Thompson wanted to bring his sister-in-law’s two children back home with him.

Thompson’s wife had cared for their children while their mother was in prison, Gundacker told the jury. And she and Thompson fretted about their fate once they were back in custody of their mother.

“Kenny Thompson cared so much” about his niece and nephew, Gundacker told jurors, “that he came all the way from Missouri to get them out of that situation. By persuading their mother, not by killing their mother.”

Gundacker told jurors that Thompson made the drive on impulse, fueled by worry about the damage being done to one of the children at the hands of mental health professionals at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

“(Scientologists) think psychology is evil and a scam,” Gundacker told jurors. “They believe psychology does not only not cure people, it causes mental illness. They think psychological medicines are central to this evil.

“They are part of the scam, and they are particularly bad when they are given to children,” he said.

A change of plans, a bloody scene
Thompson did not tell his wife about his plans. She had thought he was on his way to Memphis, Tenn., to deal with issues involving his parents’ estate.

Instead, Gundacker told the jury, Thompson arrived at an Interstate 40 junction and decided on a whim to head west not east, toward Arizona to get the children from their mother.

It was a journey of more than 1,400 miles. Thompson drove it in about 25 hours.

He rested at a hotel overnight, court records show, before taking a taxi to the home of his sister-in-law, Penelope Edwards, and her boyfriend, Troy Dunn, the morning of March 16, 2012.

What happened next is not clear. But within an hour, according to a timeline laid out in the opening arguments of both prosecutors and the defense, both Dunn and Edwards were dead.

Edwards’s body was found with 22 wounds to the head and neck, police said, some showing evidence of chopping. Her jugular vein was severed, according to court documents.

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Dunn also suffered multiple head wounds caused by something sharp, police said.

A freeway stop and a search
Around 4 p.m., Thompson was driving eastbound on I-40 on his way out of Arizona. A Department of Public Safety trooper monitoring traffic from the median thought there was something unusual about the driver.

He would write in his report that Thompson was “staring straight ahead with both arms locked out and gripping the steering wheel.”

He decided to follow behind him on the freeway, the trooper, Matt Bratz, told jurors in his testimony on Wednesday.

Thompson was driving the exact speed limit, but the trooper eventually found a reason to pull him over, Bratz testified.

The trooper said he detected the smell of a solvent in the car and spotted a red gas can. He also told jurors that he thought Thompson was acting nervously, his chest heaving and his hands shaking as he handed over his license.

The trooper asked Thompson if could walk his drug-sniffing dog around the car. There is dispute, records say, about whether Thompson gave consent. The dog seemed to hit on something in the trunk and, Bratz said, he told Thompson that gave him license to search the vehicle.

While waiting for a backup officer, Thompson asked he could retrieve a water bottle from a backpack in the car, the trooper testified.

He also volunteered a tale that, according to the trooper, seemed a non-sequitur: He had stopped by a wildlife park around feeding time and as a worker flung meat into the cages, he ended up getting blood splattered on his clothes and had to change pants.

In the search of his car, troopers found a pair of pants with blood on them, Bratz testified. They also found a hatchet covered in both blood and what appeared to be long human hair.

Bratz told jurors the backpack did not contain the water bottle that Thompson said he wanted to retrieve but did contain a handgun.

Bratz said he radioed dispatch to see if there had been unusual activity in the area and was told that police officers and firemen had responded to a house fire in Prescott Valley. Two bodies were found inside hacked to death and neighbors reported a white car leaving the scene.

Thompson was driving a white Ford Taurus.

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