Arizona's Worst Criminal

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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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin