By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Soon after Robert "Gypsy" Comer awakes each morning, he starts walking. Comer knows that 300 laps around his cell makes one mile, and he keeps track of how far he's gone. He walks for hours on end, doing his time with a kind of Zen focus, trying not to indulge in fantasies about life on the outside.
Comer calls it keeping his head in the box. The "box" is on death row, located at Special Management Unit II (SMU II), a super-maximum institution at the Arizona State Prison in Florence.
Except for a few hours a week, he is locked in this box around the clock.
Authorities have dubbed Comer the most dangerous inmate of the 28,000 in the state's prison system, something the 45-year-old murderer and rapist doesn't deny. He's a legendary bad boy among staffers and inmates, partly for his uncanny knack of shaping shanks -- prison talk for knives -- and other weapons.
Comer exists in a harsh and desolate netherworld, where some of the most vicious people that society has spawned are doomed to spend their remaining days.
In April 1988, a Maricopa County judge sentenced Comer to death, a year after the California native committed one of this state's most horrifying and high-profile crimes of the era.
On February 3, 1987, Comer murdered a stranger at a campground near Apache Lake. He then raped a woman who'd been camping with her boyfriend at an adjacent site, kidnapped her, and continued to sexually assault her. The woman escaped into the rugged wilderness, and made her way to safety after almost 24 harrowing hours. Police captured Comer and a female companion after an extensive search that ended atop a hill in remote Gila County.
Comer fit the stereotype of a madman killer, in part because he looked like a larger, even more feral version of Charles Manson -- long, wild hair, bulging eyes, heavily tattooed. Trial prosecutor K.C. Scull told jurors that Comer was the "reincarnation of the Devil on earth." The panel responded with guilty verdicts on all counts.
These days, Robert Comer appears as presentable as a con with four teardrop tattoos etched into the left side of his face possibly can. He keeps his hair short, he's clean-shaven, and he's generally polite with strangers. He even has a girlfriend, a nurse named Amy Young, who visits him once a week.
Even more surprising, he's articulate, intelligent and chillingly unsparing about the evil acts he has committed.
"I killed for no good reason and screwed up the lives of many innocent people," Comer told New Times in an April 15 interview, the first time he's ever spoken to the media. "I think it's just time for me to pay the price."
By "price," he means his execution by lethal injection, and as soon as possible. For more than two years, Comer has sought permission from a federal court to drop his criminal appeals, which would expedite his trip to the death house.
But it's uncertain if Comer will get his wish, because of a cutting-edge legal question raised in June 2000 by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. That court instructed U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver to determine "whether Mr. Comer's conditions of confinement [at SMU II] constitute punishment so harsh that he has been forced to abandon a natural desire to live."
In other words, has Comer's life at SMU II -- as unrelentingly secure as any penal facility in the nation -- so twisted his thinking that he's incapable of making a rational decision about his own survival?
"We have grave concerns that a mentally disturbed man may be seeking the court's assistance in ending his life . . ." the appellate court wrote.
Comer's appellate attorneys agree he's incompetent to drop his own appeals, mostly because of years in isolation at SMU II. They claim Comer is trying to commit suicide at the state's hands.
The inmate counters that attorneys Peter Eckerstrom and Julie Hall have put their own opposition to the death penalty ahead of his interests. "They never said anything about my competence until they found out I want to be executed," he says. "All of a sudden, I'm just nuts, incompetent."
In late 2000, Judge Silver appointed a second set of attorneys to represent Comer on the competency issue, because of the inmate's disenchantment with Eckerstrom and Hall. Those attorneys say he's eminently qualified to discontinue his appeals.
Silver held a three-day evidentiary hearing at her Phoenix courtroom in late March to help with her decision. The session drew remarkable testimony from the killer himself, who explained why he wants to die.
"A couple years ago, I'd have chopped your head off just for looking crossways at me," Comer told the judge. "For no reason at all. I'm still the same guy as I was back then. But a lot of things have meaning for me now, like my victims. It's just time to end it."
Legal experts around the nation anxiously are awaiting Silver's ruling. If she decides Comer's years of isolation at SMU II haverendered him incompetent, and appellate courts uphold her ruling, other death row inmates being held in super-max units are likely to be affected.