By Monica Alonzo
By Ray Stern
By New Times Staff
By Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Robrt L. Pela
That Leroy Nash is the subject of a story at this late date is astonishing.
In 2005, fellow death row inmate Richard Rossi wrote an article for a criminology journal titled, "Too Old to Kill," about the specter of Nash's possible execution.
Rossi described how, as a clerk at the prison library, he had read some of Nash's numerous self-composed legal pleadings.
"I always wondered how his case seemed to linger in the courts and lacked any progress," Rossi wrote, "when numerous other men who arrived here years later were already executed as their appeals were exhausted."
Sent to death row in 1984 after his conviction for murdering a Phoenix man over the price of a typewriter, Rossi said he'd come to realize that "behind the scenes, a concentrated effort was secretly under way to delay the exhaustion of this octogenarian's appeals. Could you imagine what a spectacle and horror show it would be for the state of Arizona to execute the oldest person on death row in America?"
From Rossi's point of view, "sooner or later, the execution of older prisoners will reveal the cruel and unusual punishment the death penalty is, along with the fact that it was purely senseless murder."
Of the 23 Arizona inmates put to death since the state again began to execute killers in 1992 after a hiatus of nearly three decades, eight were sentenced to the row after Nash.
However, seven of the 119 men and two women on Arizona's death row have resided there even longer than Nash, including the longest in tenure, Joe C. Smith, there since 1977.
Leroy Nash is, by far, the oldest.
By way of comparison, Leroy Nash has spent well more than 67 years of his life behind bars.
As for killer-turned-writer Richard Rossi, he died of natural causes in May 2006 at the age of 58.
But Nash and his endless case live on and on and on.
It's not that Nash's attorneys ever have argued for his innocence, primarily because he was guilty as sin in the coin shop killing.
"I feel like a dirty skunk," Nash told a Phoenix police detective shortly after he murdered Greg West. "This is worse than terrible. It's horrible. I deserve to be executed . . . I'm old and useless. They ought to put people to sleep like dogs. God, I hated to see him die."
Since his conviction and death sentence, Nash and his myriad attorneys continually have lost appeals in state and federal courtrooms.
Their main point over the years has been how poorly trial attorney Arthur Hazelton Jr. prepared and performed on Nash's behalf back in 1983.
It doesn't matter to them that even Clarence Darrow probably couldn't have kept Leroy Nash off death row under the circumstances — it was Hazelton's job to have tried.
Court records do strongly suggest that Hazelton did little to even try to win a life sentence by presenting mitigating evidence: mental illness, extreme childhood issues.
More recently, the thrust of Nash's arguments has shifted to his alleged incompetence to be executed.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said it is improper for states to execute the mentally retarded and also those inmates who can't appreciate the meaning or purpose of their impending execution and lack the capacity to make rational decisions about pursuing post-conviction appeals.
But the high court never has halted an execution strictly because of a condemned inmate's advanced age. Leroy Nash is asking the federal courts to consider the constitutionality of executing elderly inmates with dementia or, like him, with other serious age-related maladies.
Nash's legal team — which currently includes Phoenix attorney Tom Phalen and a lawyer from the federal Public Defender's Capital Habeas Unit — claims he is unfit to be executed.
Oral argument is slated for December 9 at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
Officially, the state of Arizona still wants to put Leroy Nash to death.
But the odds of Nash actually ever being executed seem to be less than slim.
"We are not opposed to moving forward with the execution of someone who is on death row and happens to be elderly," explains Kent Cattani, chief counsel of the capital litigation section at the Arizona Attorney General's Office.
"But by the time the Ninth Circuit decides whether Mr. Nash is competent to be executed or not, he may actually be incompetent. That's life, isn't it?"
So to speak.
These days, it seems a given that Leroy Nash is destined to die of old age (will he make it to 100?) rather than by a fatal injection of state-administered poison.
That end to a violent, crime-ridden life would suit his attorney just fine.
"I'm obviously not excusing the murders he committed, as they were horribly tragic," says Tom Phalen, who continues to toil for Nash at a price to taxpayers of $170 an hour — just one of many expenses that come with keeping someone on death row.
"But I also do have compassionate concern for this doddering old man, who can't hear, can't see, can't walk, and is very, very loony. Sometimes, he goes way off into his delusional world when he's talking to me. He also has a fixed set of false beliefs about the procedural history of his case, and he is impervious to persuasion to the contrary. Everyone knows this is a waste of time."
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