Arizona's Worst Criminal
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
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 have rendered him incompetent, and appellate courts uphold her ruling, other death row inmates being held in super-max units are likely to be affected.
The judge is expected to rule in a few weeks.
Robert Comer historically has been a defense's attorney's nightmare -- uncommunicative, unsympathetic and guilty of the crimes with which he's been charged.
Records show Comer spent little time with his court-appointed attorney after his 1987 arrest for murder and rape and other offenses. He chose not to attend his seven-day jury trial, though, in hindsight, it wouldn't have mattered much.
Comer had the same chance at his trial as he'd allowed his victims at Apache Lake -- none.
His murder victim, Larry Pritchard, was a drifter whose fatal mistake was settling down for the night at the same campground as Comer. He died from a bullet fired at close range, after which Comer cut his throat.
The motive seems to have been a combination of robbery and an intense desire to kill.
Tracy Andrews was spending the evening with her boyfriend, Richard Brough, at a nearby campsite. Comer hog-tied Andrews to a vehicle, and forced Brough to watch as he raped her the first time.
Andrews made an especially compelling witness, telling a rapt jury how she'd later escaped Comer's clutches and fled into the wild.
It didn't help matters when she described how Comer had shot Pritchard's purebred beagle after murdering the man. (Comer has denied shooting the dog.)
His attorneys presented little by way of defense or mitigation. After the conviction on all counts, Judge Ronald Reinstein demanded Comer's presence at sentencing, a memorable event.
First, Maricopa County jailers rooted Comer from his cell with high-powered water hoses, truncheons and fists. Comer tried to stab them with a nine-inch-long shank during the clash. Finally, he was strapped to a wheelchair, and pushed into Reinstein's court.
Naked except for a towel draped over his genitals, he sat before Reinstein slumped and mute, his face bloodied from the jailhouse struggle, his body a mélange of indecipherable tattoos, the very image of a modern-day monster.
The judge sentenced Comer to death, and added more than 300 years on the rape-related convictions. Later that day, April 11, 1988, authorities delivered Comer to death row in Florence, then located on Cellblock 6 at the main prison complex.
It wasn't his first incarceration in a maximum-security institution.
Robert Charles Comer's mother wrote the following in her journal, shortly before giving birth to him in San Jose, California.
"I feel that it will be a boy because only a boy can kick like this baby," Patricia Comer wrote on November 29, 1956.
Comer's history of violence and crime is told in thousands of pages of legal documents, psychiatric reports and other paperwork that have become public record over the years. Still, it remains something of a puzzle how Comer evolved from a personable kid who finished one badge short of being an Eagle Scout into a stone-cold killer.
He was raised in a middle-class family, the oldest of Patricia and Charles Comer's four children, all boys. His father was an engineer for a technology firm, and his mother worked as a quality-control inspector in Silicon Valley.
Photos of a youthful Comer depict a good-looking kid with an impish -- some might say devilish -- grin. He loved to fish and was a member of the school safety patrol, and played football for a time.
Comer's journey to death row started when he was detained as a juvenile in the early 1970s on charges of assault, burglary and trespassing. He quit high school during his senior year, and enlisted in the U.S. Army in January 1975. (Comer later earned his diploma by passing a GED test.)
He was training to become a military policeman when his past caught up with him. In July 1975, Army officials issued the 18-year-old an honorable discharge after learning of his juvenile record. The next year, Comer served four months in a California youth facility on a burglary rap, during which he became a member of an offshoot of the Aryan Brotherhood.
After that, his crimes escalated. In December 1978, police arrested Comer on charges of kidnapping, rape, assault with a deadly weapon, and other counts. He plea-bargained to a relatively soft prison term of seven years, and was sent for the first time to an adult prison.
Comer later admitted to having been involved in several stabbings during his prison stint, some as perpetrator and others as recipient. Still in his early 20s, he spent months in solitary confinement at the prison in Folsom, California, a profoundly violent institution.
Years later, Comer wrote about Folsom from Maricopa County Jail while awaiting his trial for murder and rape:
"I remember feeling my mind shut down, one piece at a time. I used to mess with the rats. I never could figure how they got in. At night, they would crawl on you. At first, it bugged you. But just like love, or the girl you left behind, you turned them all off. You live like a robot. . . . I used to talk to the rats at first. After four months, they talked back. You think you're going crazy, so you don't talk with the rats no more. . . . After 6 or 7 months, all your mind could say was, 'Fuck you.'"
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."
Hall -- whose sole legal focus is appealing death-penalty convictions -- said she understood how Comer's destructive experiences at the Folsom prison had affected him: "The story that needs to be told in your case is that society has to share in the responsibility for the death of the man you were convicted of killing. That society helped pull the trigger that night."
Even that overwrought plea didn't work. Comer remained determined to die by lethal injection.
Volunteering for execution isn't as rare as it might seem. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that capital punishment is constitutional, more than 90 convicted murderers have asked to be put to death -- including 60 since 1996.
When the Ninth Circuit received Comer's letter, it already had been considering his criminal appeal -- the one written by Peter Eckerstrom. The court expressed concerns about Comer's mental state, and how that may intersect with his life on SMU II. That took on added significance when Judge Warren Ferguson noted that the inmate's request to die came amid "serious questions about the constitutionality of his conviction and sentence."
That comment strongly suggests the panel -- known in legal circles for its civil libertarian bent -- is considering overturning Comer's death sentence, maybe even his murder conviction. But the court in June 2000 put the Comer case on hold until it hears from Judge Silver on two critical issues:
If Comer is legally competent to waive his appeals.
If his decision to speed up his execution truly is voluntary.
In late 2000, Silver appointed Phoenix attorneys Mike Kimerer and Holly Gieszl to represent Comer's desire to expedite his execution. Kimerer is one of Arizona's most respected criminal-defense attorneys. Gieszl mostly does health-care litigation, not criminal-defense work.
But she slowly won Comer's confidence -- no small feat -- by visiting him almost every week at SMU II, sorting out his complex, often mercurial moods, listening to his point of view.
Kimerer and Gieszl say they're anti-death penalty, but have had no problem pursuing their unorthodox mission -- to help Comer convince the courts that he should be allowed to die by lethal injection.
On the other side, habeas attorney Peter Eckerstrom felt compelled to explain that the fact he and Julie Hall also are strongly opposed to the death penalty has little to do with their trying to stave off Comer's execution.
"While it is true that we possess a moral opposition to the premeditated and unnecessary taking of any human life, those personal views are entirely irrelevant to these proceedings," he wrote Judge Silver last November. "We have an overriding duty to represent the interests of our client. Our view of the phenomenon of the death row volunteer is that it represents a form of suicide that we would never endorse, encourage or assist."
Even though Comer doesn't want them as his legal advocates, Eckerstrom indicates he and Hall will resign from the case only if Silver agrees to let the inmate drop his appeals and the Ninth Circuit upholds her ruling.
To bolster their contention that Comer is not mentally competent to decide to die, Eckerstrom and Hall hired California super-max expert Terry Kupers to examine Comer and his cell at SMU II.
The California psychiatrist concluded that Comer has been rendered incompetent. He wrote in a report to Silver that Comer's thinking stems from a deep depression and other psychological maladies caused by the extremely harsh living conditions.
"I have never seen a cell that is more physically alienating and isolating than the . . . cell where Mr. Comer has been confined for years," Kupers wrote, after spending about 20 hours with Comer over several sessions. "The conditions of confinement where Mr. Comer presently resides are far beneath what human decency requires, and as a result these conditions are aggravating the mental disorder that compels Mr. Comer's rule-breaking and threatening behavior. In these difficult straits, and as result of a mental disorder, Mr. Comer is not able to make an intelligent and rational decision to waive his appeals and be executed."
Kupers also contends that Comer suffers from posttraumatic stress syndrome, from the time he spent in solitary confinement 20 years ago at the prison in Folsom.
"Mr. Comer is very proud of the fact that he has not 'gone off his rocker' after 14 years in isolated confinement," he wrote. "And I concur -- that is an impressive accomplishment.
"A significant proportion of reasonable adults, were they subjected to the harsh conditions and treatment that Mr. Comer has endured for so many years, would certainly have lost their minds. But the absence of frank psychosis and being free of mental disorder are two very different things."
Judge Silver appointed North Carolina's Dr. Sally Johnson to also examine Comer. Johnson is a government psychiatrist who has conducted forensic examinations of such superstar criminals as Theodore "The Unabomber" Kaczynski, televangelist Jim Bakker, and would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley Jr. (Hinckley once wrote her a poem, titled "A Poem for My Favorite Pregnant Psychiatrist.")
Johnson spent 52 hours interviewing Comer before concluding he is competent to waive his criminal appeals. She agreed with Kupers that the conditions of Comer's incarceration are extremely severe, probably overly so. But Johnson said the super-max hasn't made Comer incapable of making a rational decision to die.
"The question in regard to whether Mr. Comer's decision is voluntary is a complex one," Dr. Johnson wrote. "Society has mandated through its jury system that Mr. Comer be put to death. The implication is that the normal position for Mr. Comer would be to disagree with society's mandate. Mr. Comer, on the other hand, states he accepts the jury's decision. . . . He explains that his current conditions of confinement are not the motivating factor for his decision [to drop his appeals]."
She added: "Mr. Comer expressed remorse for his behavior, and felt it was just that he be punished for his behavior within our society. He does not appear to have any irrational or delusional thinking regarding death. He does not believe he is able to be rehabilitated, and does not wish to have continued involvement with anti-death penalty attorneys."
Security was extremely tight at the federal courthouse on March 27, the day Robert Comer was to testify before Judge Silver.
Spectators had to sign in outside the courtroom, then step through a metal detector. Comer's girlfriend, Amy Young, was there, along with no fewer than a dozen prison officials. Some were in plainclothes, some in uniform. They sat and stood near every door in the expansive courtroom.
Four bulky men wearing bulletproof jackets and safety goggles flanked Comer.
The inmate sat attentively at a table in an orange jumpsuit between his pro-execution attorneys Kimerer and Gieszl. He was handcuffed, shackled, and wearing a belly chain. Attorneys Pete Eckerstrom and Julie Hall sat directly across the room at another table.
It was the first time Comer had been in a courtroom since his bizarre wheelchair-bound sentencing in 1988. More remarkably, it was the first time he'd ever testified in court.
Silver started the proceedings by asking Comer, "How are you feeling today mentally?"
Doctors Kupers and Johnson reiterated their opinions that Comer is, respectively, incompetent and competent to drop his appeals.
Straight-talking deputy warden Blaine Marshall, who oversees death row at SMU II, testified that Comer is coherent and bluntly honest with him, and has consistently expressed a wish to be executed.
Corrections sergeant Wendy Hackney said Comer often has spoken with her about wanting to speed up his execution. "I've never doubted that he understands everything going on," she testified.
Finally, it was Comer's turn. During questioning by Holly Gieszl, he came across as a man who has spent many hours contemplating his past, his present and his future:
"I ended a whole bunch of innocent people's lives, and changed their lives forever. I was sentenced to death. That's the legal sentence. I pulled my appeal. I owe that to them. I owe it to myself, man. I was totally wrong. . . . God, you guys are a lot more humane to me than I ever was to Larry [Pritchard]. Remember I stuck a gun in this guy's ear and pulled the trigger, scrambled his brains, right?"
What came next was an extraordinary dialogue between a jurist and a killer. A no-nonsense former prosecutor, Silver asked Comer direct questions, and he answered them thoughtfully and, by any definition of the word, competently.
"This has to do with me being tired," he told the judge. "Has to do with me paying my debt to society. Let's do it. I don't know what everybody's so scared about. Death is not that damned bad. Living ain't that damned bad. But I killed Larry . . ."
Comer agreed that his life on SMU II is no joy ride. However, contrary to Dr. Kupers' conclusions, he testified he's been able to survive it intact:
"I don't believe I have a life that will make me jump up and down and clap my hands and go to a party or nothing. Within the limits that I have, I try to live it fully . . . I mean, I can't get a weekend pass to go to the bowling alley, and I love to bowl. But I don't live dead in that cell."
Comer said he should be locked up at SMU II because of his violent streak: "I'm the guy who they invented super-maxes for. They let me out and walk around the halls, I'll get along just like everybody else. Except I have this problem. Someone runs their mouth at me, I deal with it."
Silver continued to grill Comer about that life.
"It seems Dr. Kupers is saying that your traumatic experiences in prison -- and elsewhere -- has been so bad that you're unable to cope now, and that this has affected your decision to voluntarily decide the most fundamental decision in life, which is to live or die. You understand?"
"Why should I think, and why should any court who reviews my decision, if I should agree with you, believe that you're not just saying that in order to end your life now, because it's so bad?"
"Ma'am, I've spent 15 years in an isolation cell. Already. And look at me. What is wrong with me that I'm hiding? What am I hiding?"
"I don't think anybody would question that you have enormous capacity for human endurance, enormous capacity," Silver responded. "But I have heard you say a number of times that you're tired."
"I am tired. I'm not depressed, but tired."
Comer had indicated earlier that he's against the death penalty, which led the judge to ask him, "If you don't believe in the death penalty, how can you voluntarily decide to take your life, unless you're being overwhelmed by your conditions such that you just want to take your life?"
"It's the law," Comer said, sounding more like a prosecutor than a convict. "Just because I say the law's wrong doesn't make the law wrong. I just don't believe in it. I was sentenced to die, legally sentenced to die here."
Silver noted that Comer may yet win a new trial in his murder case.
"Yeah," Comer replied, "it's a good appeal, but it's for you all, not for me. I killed Larry Pritchard. There is no doubt about that. So [prosecutor] K.C. Scull called me a monster. What was I trying to make him call me? Sure didn't want to be called Goldilocks."
"Do you understand you could be found not guilty?" the judge asked.
"And I presume that you don't believe that that's really much of a possibility, am I right?"
"I did it."
On April 6, Judge Silver drove to Florence to see for herself how inmate Comer lives. What she saw was this:
Comer's cell measures about eight feet by 11 and a half feet. A narrow bed is attached to the back wall, with a thin, baby-blue blanket neatly tucked under its mattress. At the foot of the bed is a television, which prison officials recently provided as a reward for Comer's staying out of trouble for almost a year.
Prison officials won't allow him to hang photographs or memorabilia of any kind on his walls. Beneath the bed are boxes of legal and other reading materials. Near the front of the cell is a metal toilet and small wash basin, with a few other sanitary items lined up above it. A tiny mirror is attached to the wall above the basin.
The four other cells in Comer's pod also have a small stool and metal "desk" attached to the wall near the sink. But a few years ago, prison officials removed those items from Comer's cell because he somehow was fashioning shanks from them. (He's apparently put his shank-making on hold since last May, when he made the one in tribute to the anniversary of Robert Vickers' 1999 execution.)
Comer and the others in his pod wear headphones when listening to the radio or watching television. That makes for an eerie silence, punctuated only by the occasional clanging of the metal doors.
To add to the isolation, the front of Comer's cell is metal mesh with a small slot that opens and closes for food and other deliveries. Another inmate on SMU II once compared it to looking out at life -- a blank concrete wall in this instance -- through a colander.
Attached to the mesh is a supposedly unbreakable Plexiglas-like covering called Lexan, designed to keep dangerous prisoners such as Comer from having access to passersby with blow darts, zip guns and the like.
Because of the covering on all five cells in his pod, Comer cannot converse easily with his peers. He says it's like talking with cotton balls in his ears, so he doesn't say much to anyone.
Every non-prisoner who steps into Comer's pod must wear a protective jacket and safety glasses.
He is allowed three hourlong "recreational periods" -- by himself -- each week in an enclosed outdoor space near his pod. It looks like a handball court with a metal-mesh ceiling. (Prison officials may provide a handball to inmates.) He may take three showers, each lasting up to 45 minutes.
Comer is allowed one five-minute phone call weekly, and may receive approved visitors for two hours, once weekly. He may visit with his attorney twice weekly, for up to three hours.
Whenever Comer leaves his pod, officers handcuff and shackle him to a gurney, then move him, face down. They also fit him with a stun belt, which zaps him if he makes sudden, pronounced movements.
Spending time in Comer's cell feels like being trapped in a tomb: It's easy to understand why he walks endlessly, and why he says he tries not to dwell much about life outside his box.
SMU II isn't for anyone, really, including Comer, but he's adapted to life here as well as anyone could. Physically, this super-max is a safer place for those around Comer, and for the inmate himself. Mentally, he seems as normal as any violent career criminal that one might ever meet.
Instead of having to watch his back every second, Comer dabbles with crossword puzzles, writing letters to Amy Young, perusing his legal papers, and watching the tube.
"I am not Hannibal Lecter, but I'm not that far away from being him, either, under the right circumstances," he tells New Times. "Know what I mean?"
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