By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
By New Times
Comer was released in August 1984 after he'd served less than six years, and found sporadic work as a carpenter. He tells New Times he used methamphetamines heavily during his 30 months of freedom after being paroled, and became increasingly determined to seek revenge against society for evils perpetrated against him at Folsom.
In February 1987, that revenge would take the form of murdering a stranger, then repeatedly raping a young woman.
On April 11, 1988, Arizona State Prison authorities put Robert Comer in a death row cell near its most infamous convict of the day, Robert Wayne Vickers.
"Bonzai," as Vickers had dubbed himself, already was a mythical character in the Arizona prison system. He'd murdered two fellow inmates who allegedly had "disrespected" him, and had carved his misspelled nickname into the back of his first victim.
Inmates in proximity to Vickers feared him like no other, and kept their distance. But he and Comer soon realized they were kindred spirits.
"He was not just a friend, he was my brother," Comer testified at his March hearing. "We spilled blood together. We kept each other going, watched each other's back, survived day to day. . . . Everybody knew if they messed with one of us, they had to take both of us. You don't find that in prison. I would give my life for him, as he would for me. We shared loyalty, honor, tribe, brotherhood, friendship and kinship."
Authorities found Comer and Vickers so problematic that they yanked the pair off death row, and put them in a segregated pod, a precursor to Arizona's super-maximum units.
Super-max prisons came to the fore in the early 1990s as officials struggled to deal with increasingly violent offenders. Now, SMU II houses about 720 inmates, including those on death row. The facility also is home to the most uncontrollably violent, the seriously mentally ill, and those designated as "STGs," or members of the Security Threat Groups -- gangs.
In May 1996, officials placed Comer and Vickers in the Violence Control Unit at the new SMU II, an even more secure facility. A year later, authorities moved the pair and the other men on death row into a wing of SMU II. (As of last week, 127 condemned men are incarcerated in that wing. The two women on death row are at the Perryville prison west of Phoenix.)
All the while, Comer's automatic appeals of his criminal convictions continued to grind through the state legal system, then through federal court.
The Arizona Supreme Court affirmed Comer's convictions in July 1990. In 1994, the State of Arizona issued a warrant of execution, another step on the inmate's circuitous road toward death by lethal injection.
That year, Comer signed paperwork requesting the appointment of so-called "habeas counsel." Such attorneys dissect the record for any possible flaws that might lead a federal court to reconsider the death sentence.
Tucson attorney Peter Eckerstrom became lead habeas counsel, and he quickly won a stay of Comer's execution as he pursued the appeal. He was joined several years later by co-counsel Julie Hall.
Comer tells New Times he'd basically forgotten about his appeal until after he officially decided to seek execution in early 2000. "Surprised the hell out of me," he says. "Then I thought, 'Oh, well. I'll just have to get the courts up to speed about where I'm at on this.' But it hasn't quite worked out that way."
Robert Vickers was executed by lethal injection in May 1999. Bonzai's death sent Comer into a months-long funk, and he vowed revenge. That August, he fashioned yet another shank, on which he inscribed his late friend's nickname. Comer sneaked the weapon into the recreation area, but corrections officers subdued him with tear gas before anyone got hurt.
Months later, the inmate decided to get on with something he says he'd long been contemplating. "I wanted to let them know they didn't have to play any more games with Comer no more, that I wanted to pull my appeals," Comer tells New Times. "It wasn't about my life in my box, because I can take that or leave that. I can live in that box just fine. It's just the right thing to do."
In March 2000, he mailed several handwritten letters to judges and prosecutors that repeated those sentiments. Comer's habeas lawyers say they were stunned by Comer's letters, and tried to talk him out of it.
On April 15, 2000, attorney Julie Hall sent a 17-page handwritten letter to Comer -- whom she'd never met. The missive was a deeply personal plea to her client.
"Dear Gypsy," the letter started, "The things I am going to say are sincere and from my heart, and not some line of bullshit from a lawyer."
Hall told Comer how much she hates SMU II, and how bad she feels after speaking to her clients through the Plexiglas there.
"A glass wall that tries to tell people, this person you are looking at is not a person; it is a specimen of evil that we removed from society. But I know the glass wall is lying, because when I look through it, I am looking at a friend."