Law Student Kills Medical Student: The Trial of James Clark Thornton III

In the spring of 1983 Jim Thornton was finishing his second year at Memphis State Law School. He was living in an apartment, separated for a couple of months from his wife Lavinia Johnston Thornton and their young son Will, 3. The latter occupied a nice house a short distance away in the Germantown area.

On Tuesday, May 3, the threesome went to an early supper at Houlihan’s. Lavinia announced to Jim that she had met a man and planned to date him. In truth she met medical student Mark Allen McConkey the previous Saturday and had been hosting nightly sex.

Thornton returned to his apartment but couldn’t concentrate on studying for final exams. He drove to the family home and saw a strange car. He peeked in the windows and saw a strange man. Leaving briefly, he fetched a camera and film and a .45 caliber automatic pistol.

Not long after he got back to the house he heard sex sounds through the wall and draped window of a ground floor bedroom. Thornton kicked open the front doors and entered the noisy room.

Here is Lavinia’s version taken from the trial transcript of evidence.

Q. If you would, please, explain for the ladies and gentlemen of the jury what occurred.
A. Jim Thornton came into the bedroom and turned on the light. He got his gun out of one pocket and his camera out of the other pocket. He pointed the gun at us and told us he was going to kill us. He said that I should have waited until I was divorced. We asked him to please put the gun down. Then he shot Mark.

This is Jim’s version from the transcript.

Q. What did you do then?
A.  Here was a naked man and my naked wife in our bed. I just lost control. I started yelling at the man. I had the gun in my hand. I yelled, “I ought to shoot you in the ass!” And then there was a shot.

Mark McConkey died 16 days later. Dr. Francisco performed the autopsy and concluded that “death was due to the infection, which was due to the gunshot wound, which produced the bleeding that facilitated the infection.”

The trial was held in Shelby County Criminal Court the week of June 18 through 22, 1984. Fred Axley presided. Jim Wilson and Veronica Coleman prosecuted. John Dice and Kelley Stark defended. The jury returned a verdict of first-degree murder with life imprisonment.

The Supreme Court opinion is reported at 730 S.W.2d 309 (Tenn. 1987). Justice Bill Harbison wrote for the court; Justice Frank Drowota dissented. The majority opined that “the case does not warrant a conviction of homicide greater than that of voluntary manslaughter.” Malice, a necessary element of murder, was not present.

Upon remand Thornton was resentenced to four years for voluntary manslaughter. He was released for time served.

Would the result be the same today? The current version of the first degree murder statute dispenses with malice as an element but requires the jury to determine whether the accused was sufficiently free from excitement and passion as to be capable of premeditation. Tenn. Code. Ann. 39-13-202(d).


Donald F. Paine DONALD F. PAINE died Nov. 18, 2013. He was a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and at the time of his death was of counsel to the Knoxville firm of Paine, Tarwater, and Bickers LLP. He was member emeritus to the Tennessee Bar Journal Editorial Board. He wrote his columns months in advance, and as a result, “Paine on Procedure” will continue through mid-2014.