In a case that began all too routinely and ended by ushering in a new era of death penalty politics in Allegheny County, Cleveland Thompson killed bartender Wallace Russell during a robbery of the Barbary Coast Club on Townsend St. in the Hill District on the night of September 13, 1949.
What followed was the longest, most contentious, and last Allegheny County case to end with an execution, nearly a decade later.
Fleeing the bar, Thompson shot Aaron Daniels, a bar patron, in the arm. He later went to the nearby home of Mattie Spells and borrowed $2, before going to the Triangle Bar. When a bartender there observed Thompson’s concealed gun, he called police and Thompson was arrested.
The Mississippi-born Thompson, 26, was convicted of first-degree murder on January 20, 1950, and sentenced to death on May 1, 1950.
Over the following decade, Thompson gained a new trial, a new death sentence, and fourteen stays of execution, before being executed. Though the broad factual case against Thompson itself was straightforward and his role in killing Russell was well established, including by eyewitness testimony, the investigation and prosecution of that case raised issues that occupied the courts for years.
In his initial appeal (Commonwealth v. Thompson, 367 Pa. 102, 1951), Thompson claimed his counsel was unprepared and inadequate and the district attorney and the judge made prejudicial statements. Those claims were rejected. Thompson’s petition for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court (342 U.S. 835, 1951) was also denied.
Thompson then filed multiple applications for federal habeas corpus relief. The first of those applications, which focused on the competency of his counsel, was denied (203 F. 2d 429, 1953). The second application, which argued that his conviction should be invalidated because the state withheld statements from Officer William Heagy that Thompson was drunk and high at the time of the killing, evidence that might have led the jury to a lesser conviction, was accepted (Thompson v. Dye, 221 F.2d 763, 1955) and Thompson’s conviction was reversed.
Even with the admission of the statements of Officer Heagy, who was shot and killed while on duty in the Hill District in 1954, Cleveland Thompson was convicted of first-degree murder in a second trial on May 30, 1956, and sentenced to death on November 27, 1956.
After his motion for a new trial was rejected, Thompson appealed again. This time he argued that he acted in self-defense when Russell attacked him and that his prior civilian and military records, which included a 1943 court martial for assault, was improperly admitted into evidence and prejudiced the jury against him. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected Thompson’s claims (Commonwealth v. Thompson, 389 Pa. 382, 1957). Justice Musmanno, a noted racial liberal, issued a sharply worded dissent, in which he attacked the willingness of Pennsylvania courts to allow evidence of unrelated crimes to be admitted.
After a new round of appeals, including an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, was unsuccessful, Thompson sought clemency. Particularly notable about his request, which raised the same issues he had been raising on appeal, was the way in which it signaled that the death penalty had become a racial justice issue within the larger Civil Rights Movement. As such, death penalty proponents sought to neutralize its racial dimensions (see the letter of the right below) while opponents sought to elevate them (see the letter on the left below, from Civil Rights leader Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.).
Cleveland Thompson’s clemency request was rejected and he was executed on April 4, 1959. He was buried in the prison cemetery at Rockview.
He remains the last person from Allegheny County to be executed. His eight years of time served in the Allegheny County Jail are unmatched in that institution’s history.
The long ordeal that culminated in his execution resulted in this particularly poignant final account.
The Barbary Coast Club and the once-vital neighborhood of which it was a part were razed a few years after Russell’s killing as part of the “urban renewal” project that replaced much of the Lower Hill District with the Civic Arena.