Arizona's Worst Criminal

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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?"

"All right."


"Pretty good."

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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin