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Marine Sergeant Sentenced to Death for Wife’s Murder

November 9, 1988

EL TORO MARINE AIR STATION, Calif. (AP) _ A Marine Corps sergeant was sentenced to death for murdering his pregnant 24-year-old wife despite his plea to a court martial to spare his life for the sake of his children and family.

″I realize you have returned a guilty verdict ... for the most serious of crimes,″ Sgt. Joseph L. Thomas, 28, said Tuesday in a courtroom at the base, 45 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

But he added: ″I have worked hard all my life. I ask that you spare my life for the sake of my children and my family. Thank you.″

Thomas, a father of two, remarried after his wife’s slaying, and his current wife is nine months pregnant.

Nevertheless, he was sentenced to death for beating Melinda Jean Thomas to death on Dec. 9, 1987, and trying to cover up the murder by staging a fiery car accident.

″The crime committed by the accused is so grievous, so monstrous, so inhuman that the only adequate response is death,″ Capt. Paul McBride, the assistant prosecutor, said in arguing for the death sentence.

The prosecutor, Capt. Bradley N. Garber, portrayed Thomas as a calculating killer who faked the car accident so he could collect $50,000 from his wife’s life insurance policy.

Execution would be carried out by lethal injection, Marine Corps spokesman Staff Sgt. Steve Short said.

The sentence will be reviewed automatically by the commanding general of El Toro’s Third Marine Aircraft Wing and forwarded to the Marines’ court of military review and the Court of Military Appeals. Thomas also can appeal his sentence to the U.S. Supreme Court, Short said.

Thomas joined the Marines in 1983 and was working as a telephone and radio wiring specialist with a support group of the Third Marine Aircraft Wing at the time of the murder.

Thomas was convicted Nov. 3 of beating his wife Melinda Jean Thomas to death. Her body was found in the burned wreckage of the couple’s Suzuki Samurai on Dec. 10, 1987, and the Riverside County Coroner at first ruled the death a suicide.

However, Thomas began to contradict himself months later in routine follow- up interviews with military officials.

Thomas’ accomplice in the slaying, Lance Cpl. Michael Nelson, testified during the monthlong court martial that he watched Thomas beat his wife to death with a tire iron.

Nelson, who testified in exchange for immunity from prosecution, said that he helped Thomas load the woman’s body into the trunk of a rented car and drive it to a mountainous area.

Once there, Nelson testified, he helped Thomas strap his wife’s body into the couple’s vehicle, doused the vehicle with gasoline and sent it hurtling off a 500-foot embankment.

When the car failed to explode as expected, Nelson said he climbed down the ravine and set it afire.

Defense attorney Maj. Mark Stevens maintained that Nelson was the real killer.

Thomas has been held in a Camp Pendleton brig since his April 5 arrest. He will eventually be transferred to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., pending completion of the military review process.

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