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Arizona Death Row Chain Gang Killing

PLN has previously reported how the death row chain gang in Arizona has resulted in numerous incidents of violence, including prisoners being wounded by shotgun blasts to quell fighting.

On July 9, 1997, the violence took a bizarre and deadly turn. On that date, Rebecca Lynn Thornton, 38, who had recently moved to Arizona from Tacoma, Wash., and six months earlier in a prison ceremony married death row prisoner Floyd Bennet Thornton, Jr., 36, was killed by a prison guard.

Rebecca Thornton drove up to the chain link fence topped with razor wire which runs along the field where her husband labored on the chain gang at the Florence state prison. Through her car window she opened fire with an AK-47 assault rifle then stepped from her vehicle firing with a pistol. As prisoners and guards scattered, her husband ran towards her, being wounded in the process by guards shooting rubber bullets. At the fence, according to ADOC spokeswoman Camilla Strongin, Thornton yelled to his wife, "Shoot me! I'm sorry things went wrong. Shoot me. Shoot me." His new bride took aim at him and fired. He later died at a local hospital. A guard then gunned down Rebecca Thornton.

Floyd Thornton was on death row for the 1993 murder of a 74-year old man while on escape from the Cochise county jail where he was being held on another murder. It was later discovered his leather ankle strap had been cut with a razor, and that two other prisoners on the chain gang had partially cut through their straps, according to Strongin.

"Initially,'' said Strongin, ''the department had decided to use that type of leg restraints because they are more humane. Obviously we will be reviewing that."

The botched escape attempt and killings have rekindled the debate about chain gangs which critics claim are used for purely political reasons. "This entire incident can be laid at the feet of Gov. Symington, and Sam Lewis [former ADOC director still feeding at the state trough on retainer as "consultant" to ADOC], and Terry Stewart. They are the people who have chosen to use these prisoners for public display," said Donna Hamm, President of the advocacy group, Middle Ground.

Symington pledged chain gangs during his 1994 re-election campaign. Lewis began them for all lock down units the summer of 1995, following the lead of Alabama. The death row chain gang, the only one in the nation, was added in December, 1995. It was the final act by Lewis as he resigned, and his long time crony, Terry Stewart, was inserted as director by Symington.

A Phoenix newspaper reported in August, 1996, that chain gangs were part of a deal Lewis cut with Symington. According to the Grapevine News: "Lewis agreed to support the punitive measures of Symington [oppression of prisoners] to help him further his political aspirations. In return, Lewis demanded that he get to name his successor when he resigned...One of the key elements of the deal was that chain gangs would be instituted in the prison system."

Stewart said they will examine whether "there's anything we need to modify in order to continue the chain gangs, but they will continue."

Seattle Times, Arizona Daily Star, Tribune, Grapevine News

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