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Columbia Missourian

Boone County commission candidate Janet Thompson has passion for horses, justice

By Richard Webner
October 25, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
Janet Thompson listens to Boone County public administrator candidates Cathy Richards, Democrat, and John Sullivan, Republican, at a public candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters.

COLUMBIA — Janet Thompson's horses have won a lot of contests. Their value in her life, however, derives not from ribbons and trophies, but from the relaxation they offer after long workdays of trying to protect accused criminals from the death penalty.

"It's nice to have something mundane like cleaning a stall when a judge has affirmed your client's death sentence," said Thompson, the Democratic candidate for Boone County Northern District Commissioner. 

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Thompson estimates she has helped save seven people from the death penalty since becoming a public defender in the early 1980s. Ten of her clients have been executed.

Her clients have been charged with horrible acts — murder and rape — but she believes that the tough lives they led should be taken into account.

"They're people who have had a really bad day," Thompson said. "Many of them have mental health issues — lots of drug and alcohol abuse."

One of her clients, Jim Johnson, was executed in 2002 for killing four in a shooting rampage. Thompson noted that he was a Vietnam veteran who had never received treatment for post traumatic stress disorder.

"He did a horrific thing, but what a nice man," Thompson said.

Thompson opposes the death penalty. "Wrongful convictions happen everywhere. If there's a chance of killing someone who didn't commit the crime, that risk isn't worth taking."

Wild horses

Thompson is a rare example of what is known in equestrian circles as an "owner-trainer-rider," said Tracy Feller, who has known her for 13 years through the Missouri horse show circuit.

"Most riders have professional trainers, but she owns her own horses and does most of the work herself," Feller said. "It makes her one of the last of a dying breed."

Shortly after dawn on a chilly October morning, Thompson was cheerful as she heaved horse manure into a cart while listening to world news on National Public Radio.

"This is something horses do very well," Thompson said as she added another shovelful to the pile. Steam rose from the manure to mingle with the thin fog that covered most of her ranch.

After emptying each of her horses' water pails and cleaning them with bleach, Thompson led Lily, a 3-year-old American saddlebred with a glossy brown coat, from her stall. Restrained by a leash and the threat of Thompson's whip, Lily began galloping in a circle for exercise. Occasionally, she stopped and shied, but Thompson whispered verbal signals that got her going again.

Thompson hasn't shown Lily at equestrian competitions yet, but she is grooming her to be her next big prize-winner. Unfortunately, Lily has some growing up to do.

"She doesn't know her job yet," Thompson said. She always makes sure to have someone present while she rides Lily in case she gets hurt.

She hopes Lily will mature over time. "It's like a kid; every time you're doing something with the horse, you're teaching her," Thompson said. "Every time you groom her, give her a haircut, change her shoes, it's a learning process."

When Thompson let Lily rest after a 20-minute exercise, the horse was exhausted, loudly exhaling clouds of steam from her nostrils. Thompson said Lily is "learning to like exercising," and, indeed, she seemed eager to return to her stall.

A childhood on professor's row

When Thompson was a child, horses helped her learn responsibility.

"Horses teach you a lot," she said. "You become humble when you realize this big animal trusts you enough to do what you ask. And you have to feed him, keep his water bucket clean, keep his stall clean, exercise him."

She began riding horses at age 8, while her family was living in Spain so her father, a urologist, could study with a Spanish doctor who had similar research interests. Her parents enrolled her in a riding school to help maintain her Spanish.

In 1959, Thompson's father accepted an offer to run MU's urology program. Her family moved into a house on a street off Stewart Road, commonly known as "professor's row" because of its popularity with academics.

During the year her family spent in Spain, Thompson developed a fascination with Spanish culture. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in Spanish at MU and started to get a Ph.D. before realizing "there weren't many opportunities for experts in golden-age Spanish poetry." She transferred to MU's law school in hopes of landing a career with more possibilities.

Thompson began her law career in the litigation department of Stinson, Mag & Fizzell, working on cases for corporations such as the Hyatt hotel chain and Trans World Airlines. Her career went a different direction in the early '80s, however, when Missouri's justice system endured a shortage of funding for public defenders, forcing judges to appoint private lawyers, including Thompson, to do the work pro bono.

She found her work as a public defender fulfilling. "I thought, 'You know, I'm doing more good on these cases than working on big cases for a civil firm.' It was a huge pay cut. My family said: 'What are you doing?'"

A credit to the office

Thompson always brings homemade cinnamon rolls into her office during the holiday season, fellow public defender Melinda Pendergraph said.

"It's not just during the holidays," said Jan Zembles, Thompson's boss. "She brings rolls, scones and brownies all the time. She's bringing a big crockpot of chili to our meeting on Friday."

Zembles, who has worked with Thompson since 1994, called her a "legal fountain of info" who is known for her skill at arguing in front of the Missouri Supreme Court.

"I don't know what I'd do without her," Zembles said. "I'm contemplating that, if she wins the election."

She is also a talented writer, Zembles said. She is on the writing and editing staff of Atticus, an in-house newsletter for Missouri state public defenders. Thompson took the name from the character of Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

"I have no idea how she makes all the time to do everything she does," Zembles said. "By the time she gets to work in the morning, she's taken care of all her horses, cats and dogs, then she goes to work, and when she gets home she takes care of the horses, cats and dogs again."

"On top of that, she has her church work," Zembles added.

Thompson spends a lot of time organizing charity events at Calvary Episcopal Church. For 19 years, she organized a charity horse show that raised $250,000 for organizations such as the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri, Boone Hospital Center and Heifer Project International, a charity that gives cows to impoverished families so that they can raise their own food.

Pendergraph has known Thompson since 1986, when they began working as public defenders. They have become close friends; Thompson gave a speech at Pendergraph's wedding that brought her to tears.

"She treats each of her clients with dignity and respect. She is empathetic and understands their concerns, but she also has this brilliant legal mind," Pendergraph said.

On Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, Thompson holds a brunch intended for friends who don't have anywhere else to go. Zembles, whose family lives in California, usually attends on Easter and Thanksgiving. She estimated 30 to 50 people show up.

"It's the most eclectic group of people you can imagine, from all Janet's worlds — retired judges, people from the medical community she knows through her parents, from her church, the horse world," Zembles said. "I think most of them have other places to go, but they come to Janet's anyway."

Problems with the system

Thompson has watched two of her clients be executed by lethal injection.

One was Vernon Brown, a man found guilty of raping and murdering a little girl. Brown, who asked her to attend the execution, had been visited by only Thompson and another lawyer over the last six years of his life. "His family had essentially abandoned him," Thompson said.

Shortly before his execution, a group of Episcopalian bishops asked the governor for leniency on his behalf. He asked Thompson why the bishops did that for him.

"I said, 'because you are a child of God,'" Thompson said. "That was the first time he had heard someone other than his lawyers considering him part of the human race, and it had a profound effect on him."

Thompson said attending clients' executions is the hardest thing she's ever done.

"You're part of a system that purports to believe killing is wrong, but there we are killing a person in a very deliberate way," she said. "The next day I undoubtedly cleaned some stalls and hugged a horse."

Balancing rural and urban

A major theme in Thompson's campaign has been the need to preserve Boone County's rural character. On her website, she promises to bring economic development "without county-wide urban sprawl."

"I look around at Boone County, and I see development on a lot of land that was pasture," she said. "We don't want to lose all the lifestyles available in Boone County. We want to protect rural areas and small towns."

Thompson thinks Boone County could attract more tourists by better promoting its trails, lakes and parks. In magazines, such as Midwest Living and Southern Living, she sees examples of other areas she thinks have done that. She cited Door County, Wis., which has branded itself "the Cape Cod of the Midwest."

Boone County also could attract more tourism by making better use of its  fairgrounds, she said. She noted the example of the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky., which expanded its indoor arena to host the World Equestrian Games in 2010, becoming the first venue to host the event outside Europe.

What happens to the goldfish?

After exercising Lily, Thompson drove her Prius to a suburban area off U.S. 63 to knock on doors. The noise of cars swishing down the highway formed a soundtrack for the neighborhood of ranch houses, and glimmers of sunlight reflecting off windshields were visible through the surrounding trees.

As she walked up to one of the houses, Thompson admired an artificial stream containing a small school of goldfish.

Dottie Carlson opened the door and greeted Thompson heartily. They discussed the neighborhood, Carlson's small business and her volunteer work with the Columbia Toastmasters Club. Thompson often leaned forward to touch Carlson's arm sympathetically as she described the charity work.

It was the second time Carlson had spoken with Thompson. They met when Thompson first canvassed the neighborhood a couple months ago.

"We made friends fast," Carlson said. "I'm a Republican, but she's a great candidate, I can say that." She said she planned to vote for her in the election.

The conversation lasted almost 15 minutes, continuing as Thompson walked backward; away from the house, toward the sidewalk. While waving goodbye, Thompson asked Carlson what she does with the goldfish in the winter.

"We leave them in there," Carlson said.

The show must go on

Thompson is working on the defense of Vincent McFadden, who is on death row after being found guilty of the 2003 murder of a young woman in St. Louis County. The defense team is arguing that a juror on McFadden's case failed to disclose that he had been called for jury duty in a separate assault case against him.

"I'm hopeful that the Missouri Supreme Court will grant McFadden relief from the death penalty," Thompson said. She also is working on five other cases, including one capital case and three in which juveniles face a sentence of life without parole.

If elected commissioner, Thompson plans to resign as public defender. She thinks she still could find time for her horses, however. She is preparing to take her best show horse, Ozzie, a five-gaited American saddlebred, to the American Royal competition in Kansas City a week after the election, and her dreams for Lily remain unbridled.

"I can get up earlier and work the horses then," she said. "The horses won't mind having their breakfast early."

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.