PHOENIX – He tried to convince jurors that his brutal slaying of two people in a Prescott Valley home was understandable when viewed through the lens of his Scientology beliefs.
The jury did not buy it and, after just two hours of deliberation, found Kenneth Wayne Thompson guilty of first-degree murder on Wednesday.
Jurors will return on Friday to begin the sentencing phase, said Shelly Bacon, a spokeswoman for Yavapai County Superior Court. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in the case.
Thompson’s attorneys used Scientology as part of a bid to spare their client the first-degree murder conviction and the possibility of a death sentence. They argued that Scientology explained why Thompson drove from his home in the Ozarks region of Missouri to the northern Arizona house of his sister-in-law that turned into a bloody and charred crime scene in March 2012.
Thompson used a hatchet and knife to kill his sister-in-law, Penelope Edwards, and her boyfriend, Troy Dunn, according to court testimony. He then poured acid over the bodies and set the house on fire before fleeing the scene.
Thompson, according to court testimony, aimed to rescue a child in the couple’s custody who was being subjected to behavioral-health treatments, including the use of anti-depressants. As a person raised as a Scientologist, Thompson believed that psychiatric treatment was damaging to the child’s eternal soul.
“(Scientologists) think psychology is evil and a scam,” defense attorney Robert Gundacker told jurors in his opening statement. He also invoked the name of Tom Cruise, the movie actor and Scientologist who famously railed against psychology during an interview on NBC’s “Today” show in 2005.
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Prosecutors told the jurors that the marathon drive of some 1,400 miles, made in just over a day, was one of many pieces of evidence that showed Thompson had an intent to commit homicide.
Among the other such evidence described or shown to jurors was footage of Thompson buying the murder weapons and a change of clothes at a Walmart that morning, his purchase of a temporary cellphone despite already owning a working one and his deceptive answers to police upon his arrest.
Thompson was stopped along Interstate 40, headed east and out of Arizona, hours after he used diesel fuel and flares to spark a fire at the home. A highway trooper parked along the side of the highway looking for speeders sensed something odd about Thompson as he drove past and followed him long enough to find an excuse to pull Thompson over.
Inside the car, the trooper found a hatchet covered with blood and the long hair of one of the victims. He radioed into the dispatch office to check if there were unusual crimes in the area and was told about the fire in a Prescott Valley home with two dead bodies inside.
Premeditated or a crime of passion?
Jurors were inevitably going to find Thompson guilty of something. His defense attorneys conceded that Thompson hacked and stabbed the two people to death, poured drain cleaner acid over their bodies and set the house ablaze.
The question was whether Thompson was guilty of premeditated first-degree murder, as the state argued, or whether the crime was a heat-of-passion manslaughter, as Thompson’s side contended.
Thompson wanted to show that he was concerned about the well-being of two children in the custody of his sister-in-law, Edwards, and her boyfriend, Dunn.
An attorney for Kenneth Wayne Thompson is suggesting that Scientology may have played a role in a double homicide committed in 2012.
Tom Tingle, The Republic | azcentral.com
Thompson’s wife, Gloria, had custody of the children while Edwards was briefly in prison. According to her court testimony, she bonded with the children and fretted about their well-being after they were returned to her sister’s custody.
Gloria Thompson testified that she had heard that one of the children was spending time in the southern Arizona town of Bisbee and another was undergoing mental health treatment at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. Her husband, Kenneth Thompson, planned his drive to Arizona, buying a temporary cellphone and leaving his own phone behind at the house.
Jurors were shown several unanswered text messages from Gloria to Kenneth that show she was worried about his whereabouts.
Thompson’s attorneys argued that Kenneth Thompson made the impulsive decision to drive to Arizona to get the children and bring them back to Missouri for a while. But, at the home, according to their closing arguments, the situation devolved into chaos and Thompson killed them in a heat of passion.
In the defense’s version of the case, Thompson poured acid on the bodies and set fire to the house in a panic, not to hide evidence.
Church teachings presented
The trial included references and testimony about the Church of Scientology, a religion started in the 1950s by L. Ron Hubbard. Some of the earliest meetings of believers of the faith originated while Hubbard lived in Phoenix in a home at the base of Camelback Mountain.
Jurors heard an expert in the religion testify about its origins, including the story of a warlord named Xenu who buried beings in a volcano on what is now Planet Earth. The expert also spoke about the use of introspective counseling called “auditing” that can rid the body of unwanted thetans, leaving a person in the desired state of “clear.”
A Church of Scientology spokesperson, Karin Pouw, in a statement sent to The Republic, expressed regret that the religion was the subject of the trial, saying the testimony about Scientology was distorted and incorrect, contributing to “hate, intolerance and bigotry.”
“There is no connection between Scientology beliefs and practices and any act taken by Kenneth Thompson at issue in the case,” the statement read. “Nothing he did could be more opposed to our moral code.”
In closing arguments last week, Deputy Yavapai County Attorney Steve Young echoed that sentiment. .
“Why is Scientology even injected into this trial?” he asked. “Scientology is not on trial; the defendant is. Scientology did not kill (the victims); the defendant did.”
Follow Richard Ruelas on Twitter: @ruelaswritings
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