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Jonathan Wesley STEPHENSON





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide - Murder for hire
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: December 4, 1989
Date of birth: June 22, 1963
Victim profile: Lisa Stephenson (his wife)
Method of murder: Shooting (high-powered rifle)
Location: Cocke County, Tennessee, USA
Status: Sentenced to death on October 19, 1990. Resentenced to life in prison without parole in 1994. Resentenced to death in 2006

The Supreme Court of Tennessee


State of Tennesse v. Jonathan Wesley Stephenson



concurring and dissent



Jonathan Wesley Stephenson was convicted of hiring a hit man to kill his wife, Lisa, who was shot in the head with a high-powered rifle in Cocke County in 1989. Stephenson and the hired hit man, Ralph Thompson, disputed which one of them fired the fatal shot, but both were convicted in separate trials.


On-and-off death row inmate to be executed

Years of appeals gave man chance at life in 1989 murder-for-hire case

Knoxville News Sentinel

June 3, 2006

The state Supreme Court, which has twice taken a Cocke County man off death row, on Friday set his execution date.

In a stunning reversal of judicial fortunes, Jonathan Wesley Stephenson faces an October execution for the 1989 ambush slaying of his wife after years of appeals that had netted him a chance at avoiding death.

In an opinion released Friday, the state's highest court opined that Stephenson deserved to die for luring his wife away from their 8-month-old baby and 4-year-old son after offering to pay for her death with cash, a boat, a truck and a motor.

Lisa Stephenson was shot in the head at close range with a high-powered rifle in a remote section of Cocke County in December 1989. It was a murder-for-hire case, although the hired hit man, Ralph Thompson, insisted that Jonathan Stephenson was the one who wound up pulling the trigger.

Stephenson countered that it was Thompson who fired the fatal shot. Under the law, it didn't matter which of the 2 men actually killed the Cocke County mother. Both were prosecuted with separate jury trials. A Cocke County jury sentenced Stephenson to death. A Sevier County jury imposed a sentence of life for Thompson, whose trial was moved because of publicity surrounding Stephenson's trial.

Stephenson, testimony has shown, wanted his wife dead because his stripper girlfriend did not know he was married. He also feared losing "everything he'd ever worked for" in a divorce, according to trial testimony.

In 1994, the state Supreme Court vacated Jonathan Stephenson's death sentence because of a procedural error and sent the case back to Cocke County for a new sentencing hearing.

District Attorney General Al Schmutzer then offered Stephenson a deal to spare Lisa Stephenson's family further court grief. Under the deal, Stephenson would be sentenced to life without parole for murdering his wife and another 60 years for plotting with Thompson to kill her.

Stephenson took the deal but then appealed. The state Supreme Court again sided with Stephenson, ruling that the law allowing a sentence of life without parole wasn't on the books when the slaying occurred. The court again took Stephenson off death row.

This time, Schmutzer offered no deal and a jury again sentenced Stephenson to death.

Stephenson appealed again, arguing, among other things, that it was unfair for him to be put to death when Thompson was allowed to live for the same crime.

In an opinion written by Justice Janice M. Holder and released Friday, the state's high court disagreed.

"In the present case, the defendant's relationship to the victim and his role as leader in instigating and planning the murder distinguishes him from Thompson," Holder wrote. "Moreover, this court has upheld death sentences in murder-for-hire cases where the actual killer received a sentence of life imprisonment."

Retiring Justice Adolpho A. Birch Jr. issued a lone dissent, calling the majority to task for one of its legal conclusions and the panel's overall standard of reviewing death sentences for fairness.

Although an execution date has been set for Stephenson, it is unlikely that it will be carried out. He is entitled under the law to another round of federal appeals.


Supreme Court Affirms Death Sentence For Inmate Who Appealed Life Sentence

Associated Press

June 3, 2006

The Tennessee Supreme Court has affirmed the death sentence Cocke County jurors imposed on a truck driver for his role in the contract killing of his wife who was shot at close range after being lured to a remote area.

Jonathan Wesley Stephenson was first sentenced to death in 1990 for the 1st degree murder of Lisa Stephenson. He also received a 25 year sentence for conspiracy to commit murder. A new sentencing hearing was ordered due to a legal error nullifying the jurors' verdict. By agreement with the prosecution and defense, the death sentence was later changed to life without parole for the murder and 60 years in prison for conspiracy.

Stephenson then challenged the reduced sentence and the Tennessee Supreme Court ordered a new sentencing hearing. Jurors again imposed a death sentence which was upheld by the Supreme Court.

"Having carefully reviewed the record and relevant legal authority, we conclude that none of the errors alleged by the defendant warrants relief," Justice Janice M. Holder wrote for the majority. Chief Justice William M. Barker and Justices E. Riley Anderson and Cornelia Clark concurred in the decision filed Friday.

In a separate concurring and dissenting opinion, Justice Adolpho A. Birch, Jr., said he agrees with the majority that Stephenson's convictions should be affirmed, but disagreed concerning the majoritys conclusion regarding an issue raised by Stephenson in his appeal.

"I respectfully dissent from that portion of the majority's opinion concluding that the Sixth Amendment right to confrontation of witnesses and the state constitutional right to confront witnesses 'face-to-face' does not apply to capital sentencing hearings," Justice Birch wrote.

As in previous dissents, Justice Birch also wrote that the method used by the court to review and compare Tennessee capital cases is "inadequate" in his view. State law requires the court to conduct comparative proportionality review in each death penalty case to determine whether the sentence is disproportionate to the penalties in similar cases.

Justice Holder said the court recognizes that no two cases involve identical circumstances. Quoting an earlier case, State v. Bland, she wrote that the court's objective is not to "'prove that a defendant's death sentence is perfectly symmetrical, but to identify and to invalidate the aberrant death sentence."

"We conclude that the sentence of death has not been imposed arbitrarily, that the evidence supports the jury's finding of the statutory aggravating circumstance, that the evidence supports the jury's finding that the aggravating circumstance outweighs the mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt and that the sentence is not excessive or disproportionate," Justice Holder wrote.

The court set an Oct. 11, 2006, execution date for Stephenson, who has appeals remaining.

Stephenson and a co-defendant, Ralph Thompson, Jr., were found guilty of killing Lisa Stephenson, the mother of two young children, with a rifle as she sat in her vehicle in an isolated area in Cocke County.

Thompson received a life sentence for the murder and an additional 25 years for conspiracy to commit murder. Each defendant blamed the other for the actual shooting.

Stephenson had offered Thompson and others cash, a boat, a motor and a truck if they would kill his wife. He complained that he would "lose everything he had worked for" if they divorced.

The court considered and rejected all issues raised by Stephenson in his appeal. The decision upholds a decision of the Court of Criminal Appeals, which also found his claims to be without merit.


The facts

At approximately 10:00 a.m. on December 4, 1989, police were called to investigate a shooting death. They found the victim, Lisa Stephenson, sitting in the driver’s seat of her car with a large hole in her forehead. She had been shot to death through the windshield.

The investigation led police later that night to the home of Ralph Thompson in Morristown, Tennessee, where a high powered rifle was recovered. The rifle smelled as if it had been recently cleaned. Although bullet fragments were later recovered from the victim's body, it was not possible to establish whether they were fired from that rifle.

An autopsy revealed that Lisa had been shot in the forehead at close range and her hands indicated that she was in a defensive position when she was killed. 

At trial, a man who worked as a truck driver with Lisa's husband, Jonathan Stephenson, stated that a few weeks after he became acquainted with Stephenson, he began talking about wanting to kill someone “practically every time we got together."

The co-worker did not know who the intended victim was, only that Stephenson wanted him to kill the wife of a friend. Stephenson offered his co-worker various forms of payment in exchange for the killing including cash, insurance proceeds, and a boat and motor. Stephenson told the man that the victim lived out in the country and offered various ways she could be shot and killed.

One night, Stephenson brought a handgun to work and told his co-worker he had the money with him. The man refused to become involved in any such killing.

A few weeks after the last discussion he had with Stephenson about killing the victim, the man returned from a road trip and learned through a newspaper article about Lisa Stephenson’s murder. Another man, named Michael, testified that he met Stephenson through a friend named Ralph Thompson.

In the fall of 1989, during a discussion among Michael, Thompson, and Stephenson, Stephenson offered him $5,000 to kill his wife. Stephenson suggested that Michael go to his mobile home and shoot his wife with a rifle as she sat on the couch.

Stephenson stated that his wife intended to divorce him and “take everything he’d ever worked for” and said this was the reason he wanted her killed. Michael stated they never discussed killing Stephenson’s wife again. He recalled next seeing Stephenson on December 3, 1989, the day of the murder.

Michael and Thompson went to Stephenson’s house to cut firewood and then to Thompson’s house to watch movies. Stephenson arrived that evening and reminded Thompson about a job interview. Thompson changed clothes and left with Stephenson. Thompson later returned alone.

On cross-examination, Michael testified that Thompson had a key to a fishing boat owned by Stephenson and a key to Stephenson’s truck. He stated that he and Thompson had permission to take the truck and boat and go fishing whenever they liked. Michael acknowledged that Thompson owned a hunting rifle.

A woman named Julie testified that in 1989 she was single and living in La Follette, Tennessee. She met Stephenson that year at a bar in Knoxville and the two began dating. Stephenson told Julie that he had a son and had been married, but that his wife, Lisa, had been killed in a car accident five years earlier.

Stephenson also told Julie that after his wife’s death, he developed a relationship with his wife’s sister and the two had a child together. Julie testified that her relationship with Stephenson was “serious” and they had discussed marriage. On the weekend before Lisa Stephenson’s murder, Julie accompanied Stephenson to a K-Mart where he bought rifle ammunition. Julie stated that in the afternoon on the day of the murder, she and Stephenson were supposed to meet.

Instead, they spoke on the telephone and agreed to meet at 8:00 o’clock that evening. However, they did not meet and Julie did not hear from Stephenson again until 10:30 that night when he called and instructed Julie to meet him in Harrogate, Tennessee.

Julie met Stephenson at a Hardee’s restaurant and Stephenson informed her that “Kathy” was dead. Stephenson explained that he and Ralph Thompson had gone to a place where Kathy was meeting with people to whom she owed money. Stephenson said that when he and Thompson arrived, Kathy was already dead.

According to Stephenson, he and Thompson fought the two men that had killed her and left them for dead. Stephenson told Julie that the police “were in with the people” that killed Kathy. Asked about his children, Stephenson told Julie that they were with Kathy’s father. Julie testified that Stephenson commented about Kathy, “I didn’t love her, but I’m going to miss the bitch.” The next morning, Stephenson called Julie at her office and told her he had been called in for questioning.

The following day, Julie learned that the woman Stephenson had been referring to as “Kathy” was actually his wife, Lisa. Julie read a letter Stephenson wrote to her from jail in December 1989. In the letter, he stated that he had told his wife about Julie and asked Julie not to “get involved with this.”

He denied killing Lisa, hinting that Lisa was “involved with some powerful people.” He said that “David and Ralph” are both involved and asked Julie not to say anything about the time he and she had met at Hardee’s. Stephenson told Julie that he loved her. Julie agreed that everything Stephenson had told her was a lie.

On re-direct examination, Julie testified that Stephenson gave her a ring in November 1989. She further recalled a time when she traveled with Stephenson to his father’s home near St. Louis. Upon their arrival, Stephenson hitched up a boat and told Julie that he did not want to go inside because Stephenson’s children were staying with his father and would want to return to Tennessee with Stephenson if they saw him.

Stephenson and Julie returned to Tennessee, and the boat was stored at Julie’s house. Julie later told authorities about the boat and it was seized. Julie testified that Stephenson also owned another boat, different from the one they picked up in St. Louis. David Davenport testified that in December 1989, he was a special agent with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

On December 4, 1989, he interviewed Stephenson at the sheriff’s department about Stephenson’s wife’s murder. Agent Davenport recalled Stephenson’s statement: Stephenson had left home at around 7:00 p.m. on December 3, 1989, and gone to Ralph Thompson’s home.

Stephenson told Thompson about a job that Thompson might get with the help of Stephenson’s friend. Stephenson stated that he and Thompson went to the friend’s house and stayed there until 10:00 p.m. and then went to work. Stephenson told Agent Davenport that he and his wife were getting along great and did not have any serious disagreements, although Stephenson also stated that he had a girlfriend.

Stephenson believed that his wife also had a boyfriend, but he wasn’t sure who it was. However, Stephenson told Agent Davenport that he would not dream of giving up his wife and that divorce had not been discussed.

According to Stephenson, after he had left Morristown that evening, he stopped at Harrogate and visited with his girlfriend. Stephenson denied trying to hire anyone to hurt his wife. He told Davenport that he did not know anyone that would have killed her and offered to take a polygraph test. At 2:15 p.m. the next day, Davenport again met with Stephenson.

At that time, Stephenson noted that he and his wife had been to a movie and dinner on the day before her death. He essentially repeated that on the day his wife was killed, he had gone to Thompson’s house, then to Robertson’s home, and then to work, leaving about 10:15 p.m. He denied being involved in any criminal activity. Later that evening, Davenport again questioned Stephenson.

At this meeting, Davenport confronted Stephenson with Thompson, who informed Stephenson that he had given a statement about his involvement in the murder to police. In response, Stephenson told Davenport that the year before, his supervisor had asked Stephenson if he knew anyone who could kill the man’s ex-wife.

Stephenson stated that he approached Thompson, who agreed to take the “job” for $15,000. Stephenson stated that on the night of his wife’s murder, he and Thompson went to Robertson’s house and Thompson brought his rifle. Stephenson stated that he stayed at Robertson’s house for two hours. Thompson left and returned, said “it” was done, and gave Stephenson two rifle shells. Stephenson stated he had no idea his own wife had been killed until he was notified later that night.

Stephenson further stated that after the murder, he asked Thompson why Thompson had killed his wife. Thompson replied that he didn’t know it was her. Stephenson told Davenport that he did not believe that Thompson had killed his wife, but that he had taken someone with him who had.

Davenport confronted Stephenson, telling him that his supervisor had told a different story and that he didn’t believe Stephenson. Stephenson then admitted that his initial statement was not true. Stephenson admitted that he and Thompson planned to kill Lisa, but he stated that he did not pull the trigger.

According to Stephenson, he picked up Thompson, who was carrying a rifle. The two men went to Robertson’s house for a few minutes at about 7:15 p.m. Stephenson told Robertson to tell anyone who asked that they had remained there until 9:45 p.m. Thompson directed Stephenson to drive down a gravel road in the country, then told Stephenson where to stop. Thompson exited the car with the rifle.

Stephenson remained in his car and heard a shot. Stephenson drove back down the road and saw his wife’s car. He picked up Thompson, who gave him two empty rifle cartridges. Stephenson went to work and threw away the cartridges on the way. Stephenson stated that he told his girlfriend that his wife had gotten into some trouble and he wasn’t able to stop it.

Stephenson concluded his signed statement as follows: “Ralph asked me if he killed Lisa would I give him my boat, motor and truck and I told him I would. I did not pull the trigger. I did not arrange the set up. Ralph took care of everything.” Stephenson’s father testified that he owned a boat that he discovered missing one morning, and he had reported it stolen.

He stated that he had not given Stephenson permission to take the boat. Near the end of Stephenson’s trial, Davenport informed Stephenson that his boat had been found chained to a tree at Julie’s house and could be picked up from police storage. Stephenson did not know how the boat got to Julie’s house and never knew his son had taken the boat.

On further examination, Stephenson stated that Stephenson had permission to use the boat when he wanted. The victim’s father testified he lived in a mobile home in a wooded area of Hamblen County. His daughter had another mobile home she shared with her family at the back of the same property.

On December 3, 1989, he and his wife worked the “graveyard shift,” returning home at 7:00 a.m. Around noon, he became concerned after not noticing any activity at his daughter’s house. He explained that his daughter did not work outside the home, but painted figurines for a local company which allowed her to stay home and care for her children.

He knocked on her door and found his 4-year old grandson eating from a box of cereal. The child had prepared a bottle for his 8-month old brother. He took the children to his home and began looking for his daughter. When he arrived home, authorities were there and told him that she had been murdered.

He testified that he and his wife adopted the children and had raised them since his daughter’s death. He identified a ring as one he had brought back from a tour of duty in Korea. He had given it to his grandson when he was born, and his daughter had kept it in a locked jewelry box.

He testified he had not given Stephenson permission to give the ring to his girlfriend, but had noticed the ring on Julie’s finger during Stephenson’s trial. After the sheriff spoke to Julie, she returned the ring. He testified that Stephenson had not tried to contact his children and had never expressed remorse or sorrow for his wife’s murder.


Jonathan Wesley Stephenson



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