Dead Man Talking

Death-row inmate Robert Comer says he's "regained control" of his life, an ironic choice of words in light of a judge's decision last week to allow his execution to proceed.

U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver's ruling came almost three months after she heard testimony concerning Comer's current mental state and his living conditions at the state prison in Florence ("Arizona's Worst Criminal," Paul Rubin, May 2).

It's unclear, however, how another recent ruling, this one by the U.S. Supreme Court, will affect his murder conviction and status on death row. The high court on Monday ruled that juries, not judges, must decide if death sentences or imprisonment for convicted killers are warranted. Comer, like all other murderers in Arizona, was sentenced by a judge.

A federal appellate panel ordered the hearing after Comer asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in March 2000 to allow him to die by lethal injection.

Among other tasks, that court instructed Silver to determine if Comer's isolated and difficult life in a "super-max" prison unit — Special Management Unit II — has rendered him psychologically incapable of making a rational decision about wanting to die.

Silver's job was daunting, in that no case law apparently exists to guide her as to how prison conditions may affect an inmate's decision to drop his or her appeals.

Comer's decision to become a so-called death row volunteer took on added significance because the appellate panel also had "serious questions about the constitutionality of [Comer's] conviction and sentence."

Comer was the key witness at the three-day hearing, engaging articulately in a memorable dialogue with the judge about why he believes he should be executed.

"[This] has to do with me paying my debt to society," he told Silver. ". . . 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."

Now 45, Comer became one of Arizona's most reviled criminals in 1987, after he murdered a stranger at a campground near Apache Lake, then repeatedly raped a woman who'd been camping at a nearby site. Police arrested Comer and a female companion after a 24-hour manhunt that ended atop a hill in remote Gila County.

At Comer's criminal trial in Maricopa County Superior Court, a prosecutor told jurors that the onetime Boy Scout and military police-trainee was "the reincarnation of the devil on Earth." They responded by convicting Comer on all counts.

Representing Comer at the hearing in Silver's downtown Phoenix courtroom were Mike Kimerer and Holly Gieszl. The attorneys had an unconventional mission — to fight for a legal victory that would expedite their client's execution.

Opposing Comer's position were his Tucson-based appellate attorneys, Peter Eckerstrom and Julie Hall, who claimed their client is incapable of making an informed decision about waiving his own appeals. The pair called California psychiatrist and super-max foe Terry Kupers, who alleged that Comer's desire to die stems from serious mental problems caused by his harsh living conditions.

But Silver didn't buy that, especially after Comer passionately but calmly explained his reasons for wanting to die.

"After carefully considering all of the relevant evidence and the pleadings," the judge wrote in a five-page opinion issued June 20. "[I] have no doubt that Mr. Comer is competent to dismiss [Eckerstrom and Hall] and to forgo further legal review of his convictions and sentences."

Silver said she plans to issue a more extensive explanation of her decision, but hasn't yet finished writing it.

The judge wrote that "in order to relieve all parties of the suspense regarding the Court's resolution of these issues before it," she'd decided to reveal her basic thinking on the case.

Assistant attorney general John Pressley Todd — who also participated in the March hearing with fellow AG Mike Brodsky — says he's satisfied with Silver's ruling.

"We think that the judge decided this on what she heard and witnessed, and that it's the right decision," Todd says. "If this is what Mr. Comer wants, then so be it. From what I saw and heard during that hearing, he's a standup guy."

Criminal-defense attorney Mike Kimerer agrees with Todd, but adds a cautionary note.

"Yes, we were doing what our client wanted by fighting for his right to waive his appeals," Kimerer says, "but you don't like to see someone die."

"I think everyone in that courtroom last spring saw a different side to Robert Comer than the image of a monster that he's had for so long — a positive side. I know he appreciated being represented by lawyers that actually listened to his position, and responded accordingly."

In a brief phone interview last Friday, Comer told New Times that he was elated with Judge Silver's ruling.

"I'm happy that the judge saw me for what I am," the inmate says. "It's been a long battle to get this far, and I have to thank my lawyers Holly and Mike for working so hard for me. I'm just trying to do the right thing, and that's the truth."

Despite the judge's ruling, Comer says he knows he's not going to be executed in the near future — or maybe at all, if the Ninth Circuit overturns his murder conviction or the Supreme Court ruling affects his sentence.

"I know there's a long way to go," he says.

For starters, Comer's appellate attorneys likely will be filing an appeal of Silver's ruling.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin