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First person to die in Alabama’s prisons with COVID-19 spent more than four decades behind bars

The first person to die in Alabama’s prisons after testing positive for COVID-19 was among the more than 1,100 incarcerated people identified weeks earlier by the Southern Poverty Law Center as having an elevated risk for extreme cases of the illness because of their age.  

The SPLC published the data as public health experts, attorneys and law professors called on Alabama to release as many people from prison as possible in order to head off a coronavirus outbreak behind bars. Since the SPLC’s report, the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles has announced it will re-start parole hearings in May, but state officials have not indicated that a wider release of at-risk individuals is planned.

Dave Thomas, who was from Anniston, Ala., died on April 16. He was 66. He was terminally ill and died of a “cardiovascular event” after testing positive for COVID-19 less than 24 hours earlier, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC).

Serving a life sentence for a 1976 murder in which a co-defendant shot a store clerk, Thomas was among the nearly 400 people age 65 or older who have spent more than 30 years in ADOC custody, according to the SPLC’s dataset. For decades, he sought a reduction in his sentence. In 2008, he wrote to a judge that he should be granted leniency because he didn’t fire the fatal shot during the robber.

Just last August, Thomas asked a state court to award him jail credit he believed he was due since the late 1970s. “I’m not getting any younger,” he wrote.

According to an ADOC statement, Thomas died at a hospital after being taken there from St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville on April 4.

Until recently, though, Thomas was incarcerated at the overcrowded Fountain Correctional Facility in Atmore, according to the SPLC’s data and ADOC’s online records. There are 57 other people age 65 and older incarcerated at the prison, and therefore at elevated risk for severe cases of COVID-19, according to the SPLC’s data. More than a dozen, like Thomas, have been in ADOC custody for more than 30 years.

Just three people at Fountain have been tested for the coronavirus, according to ADOC’s most recent public data on testing. With a population of 1,258 as of January, Fountain was operating at 150 percent of its designed capacity.

Thomas was one of 334 people among the ADOC population of more than 1,100 people age 65 or older who are classified as “minimum security,” according to the SPLC’s data. That means officials did not consider him, in the words of ADOC’s Male Inmate Handbook, to be “a risk to [himself] or others.”

ADOC’s measures to prevent an outbreak include a suspension of transfers between prisons, but “security and health exceptions may be made,” according to ADOC’s website. Experts and activists have repeatedly noted that social distancing and other mitigation strategies do not work in correctional settings.

In an email, an ADOC spokeswoman confirmed that Thomas had been at Fountain until April 3. “We can confirm Thomas was not symptomatic for COVID-19 upon both his arrival and departure from St. Clair,” she wrote.

“The ADOC is taking the proper precautions and actions to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our facilities. The Department has been working closely with Alabama Governor Kay Ivey’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Task Force, the Alabama Department of Public Health, and infectious disease control experts on these proactive efforts.”

Life in prison

Thomas was 22 on Dec. 16, 1976, when he took part in a robbery during which a store clerk was killed. Court records indicate that though he pleaded guilty to murder in a second trial in 1982, one of his co-defendants fired the murder weapon during the robbery in Randolph County. Thomas later said he told one of his two co-defendants before the robbery, “I didn’t have the heart to shoot anyone,” according to court documents. But when the three men entered the store and demanded cash, the clerk pulled out his own pistol. According to court records, one of the other men fired a shotgun at the clerk’s chest.

A judge reviewed the evidence against Thomas in 1978, finding it was sufficient to convict him for murder.

“Perhaps he was not as aggressive as the other two [defendants] in the perpetration of a planned robbery, in which it was obvious that murder might be committed if necessary,” the judge wrote. But, he continued, “[Thomas] may have preferred not to shoot the victim, he may have hoped that the robbery could be accomplished without killing him, but his presence without protest, armed with a gun in the commission of a planned robbery, is strong evidence of his intention to kill if and when a homicide became necessary.”

Because the murder occurred during a robbery, Thomas was charged with capital murder. A jury convicted him and sought the death penalty. However, after a hearing, the trial judge sentenced Thomas to life without parole.

In 1982, Thomas was ordered to be given a new trial. In October of that year, he pleaded guilty to murder and received a life sentence.

For decades, he repeatedly filed motions to have his sentence reduced. The motions were repeatedly denied. On May 1995, a judge wrote in one order: “Petitioner may have nothing better to do than prepare and file these petitions, but they will be summarily denied.” The judge noted a lack of new evidence and numerous opportunities given to Thomas to have any errors in the case rectified.

But Thomas maintained that he was due relief. “The facts of petitioner’s case support reconsideration. The petitioner’s prison record supports reconsideration. The petitioner has been incarcerated 33 years,” he wrote in an October 2008 filing.

One of Thomas’ co-defendants is still incarcerated, but the other was paroled in 1992.That co-defendant received the same sentence as Thomas: life with the possibility of parole.

It is unclear why Thomas did not receive the same opportunity to leave prison as his co-defendant.

Photo by Kim Chandler/AP Images