Nation’s Oldest Death Row Inmate Will Never Be Executed

A few weeks ago, an elderly gentleman named Viva Leroy Nash wrote to New Times about the death penalty.

"Now that our stubborn President Bush is about to leave office," Nash wrote in a shaky hand, "it appears that our overly tenacious state prosecutors won't be so brazen as to actually push Congress around in order to demonstrate their egregious power."

He went on, "There are obviously many weird people in our world, with twisted minds, that have a tendency to not only kill helpless people, but often do it in a despicable manner. Often, psychos turn into insane serial killers who should be promptly eliminated, not tortured to suicide, as I've seen happen.

"Genuine serial killers should be eliminated by execution quickly, but not by prison guards or their contemporaries. Same for adults or homos who kill children. Or Mormons who habitually force children into marriage."

Nash wasn't specific on how these murderers (and Mormons) might be "eliminated," though he said that "no elected person or any of his cohorts should have that power or authority. Especially if he or she is a religious nut and refuses to listen to the common sense of the majority, who aren't really in support of the death penalty from what I've read."

(To the contrary, a Gallup poll last month said 64 percent of Americans favor execution in special circumstances. However, that's down from two decades ago, when about 75 percent of those polled said they were pro-death penalty.)

Leroy Nash framed his thoughts about capital punishment from a unique perspective and location.

At 93 years old, he is the oldest person currently on death row in the United States.

Nash resides inside the Browning Unit at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Eyman, a "super-max" facility in Florence.

It is about an hour's drive from the site of the west Phoenix coin store where, in November 1982, he shot employee Greg West to death and traumatized Susan McCullough for a lifetime.

Nash's attorneys long have claimed that senility and serious mental illness have morphed him into a "fossil" legally incompetent to be executed.

But Nash's many missives to this paper, in which he has answered questions carefully and usually cogently, suggest otherwise.

For example, he wrote last May in response to a question about any remorse he might have:

"I have and do regret many negative instances or happenings in my life, instances when I committed a negative wrongfully, and later really regretted it at length. But it is far better that one, if he can't turn it into a positive, do what he can to push it out of his memory, so as to eliminate as much damage as possible. I do not like to hurt people!"

Maybe he doesn't, but he sure has.

Nash has been convicted of murdering two people, one in Utah in 1977, the other at the Moon Valley Coin and Stamp store in 1982. He also tried to kill a Connecticut police officer in 1947.

Nash gives profound meaning to the phrase "career criminal."

His record reaches back three-quarters of a century to 1932, the year Franklin Delano Roosevelt assumed the presidency and the year Babe Ruth famously called his own home run in the World Series.

But his first murder conviction had to wait until 1977 — a few years after he'd been paroled after serving 25 years for the attempted cop-murder. It was then that the 67-year-old outlaw was convicted of shooting to death a Salt Lake City mail carrier.

The victim had happened to enter a jewelry store Nash and a partner were robbing.

Five years after that, Nash walked away from a work detail outside the walls of the Utah State Prison. How he got trusty status while serving two life sentences, and after three escapes from other prisons, is uncertain.

Nash killed again just three weeks after escaping from Utah. How he executed 23-year-old coin store employee West on November 3, 1982, defines that "despicable manner" he damned (referring to others) in his recent letter to this paper.

Court documents and the woman whose life miraculously was spared during the Phoenix robbery-murder describe in chilling detail how Nash shot West three times, twice after the younger man begged for mercy.

Store owner Susan McCullough recently spoke to New Times, the first time she'd discussed the murder publicly since testifying before Nash was sentenced on June 27, 1983.

"The gun was pointed right at me, and I knew I was going to die," the diminutive Gilbert grandmother said, hands trembling.

"This was after Mr. Nash shot Greg the first time. I was looking at the barrel of the gun and, for some reason, I flashed on my daughter, who was around 9 at the time.

"He pulled the trigger, but it didn't fire, and I dropped down under the table. I still don't understand why Nash didn't come around and kill me.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin