James Granvil Wallace, a 62-year-old murderer from Tucson who has been on death row for more than a quarter-century, now will spend the rest of his life in prison after a highly controversial Arizona Supreme Court ruling.
The court's unanimous reasoning for allowing Wallace to escape execution: "We find that the State has not established beyond a reasonable doubt that Wallace inflicted gratuitous violence on the [victims]."
"Gratuitous violence," it seems, is a term of legal art that defies any kind of common-sense logic from where we sit.
A 2008 Arizona Supreme Court case (State v. Bocharski) says that prosecutors must prove that the killer used "violence beyond that necessary to kill," and continued to inflict violence after he or she "knew or should have known that a fatal action had occurred."
In other words, overkill.
That's exactly what Wallace did, three times, or so it sure seemed that way.
(In Bocharski, a Yavapai County case, the killer stabbed the victim 24 times in the head, including eight wounds that penetrated deep into the skull. The court in that case concluded that the multiple, rapid attacks on the victim, "although reprehensible," did not necessarily establish `gratuitous violence.' Go figure.)
We'd long thought of Mr. Wallace as the perfect "poster child" for the death penalty (not saying whether we, personally, are pro or con the execution-by-government thing).
His big legal victory comes after he previously had appealed his case four times, and each time was sentenced to death--twice by juries.
The evidence against Wallace was overwhelming and uncontroverted, and included a legitimate confession to truly senseless crimes that had stunned even grizzled cops and prosecutors.
Wallace in early 1984 was living with his girlfriend and her two children (ages 16 and 12). He came home drunk one night, and the girlfriend, Susan Insalaco, ordered him to move out.
The next morning, Susan and the kids went to work and school, respectively. Wallace stayed behind, awaiting his opportunity to slaughter the trio.
Anna got home from school first. Wallace quickly attacked her from behind with a small wooden baseball bat, repeatedly bashing her on the head and body.
Unfortunately, the girl did know what was hitting her, and who her attacker was.
Wallace battered her with the bat at least ten times, eventually breaking the bat, but according to his later account, she was still alive and conscious for a time.
"I thought she would die with one blow," Wallace told the cops, "that'd be it, like in the movies. It ain't that way. She looked me in the eye, she knew who was killing her. She wouldn't die. I broke a fucking bat on her head and she was still moaning."
So, he dragged the teen into a bathroom and drove the broken bat into and through her throat, leaving a bulge in her back where the end of the bat came to rest.
That was Wallace's first murder.
Twelve-year-old Gabriel came home next, and Wallace pummeled the boy to death with an 18-inch pipe wrench about a dozen times.
Susan, the girlfriend, arrived home from work a few hours later and Wallace soon pounded her over and over with the hefty pipe wrench. She, too, died of the blunt-force injuries.
Wallace turned himself in to police the next day, and confessed in gory detail, without providing a motive for the murders.
He later pleaded guilty, and a judge (in those days, the trial judge, not a jury, would do the sentencing in capital cases) ordered him to death row for all three homicides.
After a series of appellate losses, Wallace won a victory of sorts in 2008 when the Arizona Supreme Court reduced the sentence for Susan's murder to life, saying there wasn't enough evidence to prove a so-called "aggravating circumstance"--a must to uphold a death sentence. The court also remaded the other two murder cases to Pima County for a new sentencing trial.
In upholding the remaining two death sentences, a jury in 2009 again found that Wallace had murdered both kids in an "especially heinous or depraved manner through the use of gratuitous violence."
The Wallace court, whose opinion was written by Justice A. John Pelander, noted that a medical examiner "could not determine whether [16-year-old] Anna was alive when Wallace inserted the bat into her neck," nor could he conclude for sure whether "Anna sustained more injuries than were necessary to have caused her death."
From the opinion:
"Viewed as a whole, the evidence casts reasonable doubt on whether Wallace knew of should have known a fatal wound had been inflicted when he stabbed Anna in the neck."
Same goes for 12-year-old Gabriel's murder, who suffered eleven lacerations from the big wrench on his head, including two that, according to the medical examiner, "most likely [would have been] fatal."
Not "gratuitous violence," according to the high court, just a good old-fashioned (non-death penalty) first-degree murder.
In a kind of mea culpa, the court concludes near the end of its 21-page opinion, "Even among capital cases, this case is atrocious. Wallace's premeditated, brutal murders...clearly were senseless, and the unsuspecting, defenseless victims were helpless.
"Under Arizona's current statutes, Wallace most certainly would eligible for the death sentence. But under the applicable law when Wallace murdered the victims, his eligibility for capital punishment requires a finding of gratuitous violence to establish heinousness or depravity [under the law]."
The court ordered the two new life sentences for the childrens' murders to be served consecutively to the life sentence previously imposed for Susan Insalaco's vicious murder.
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A prosecutor friend of ours sent us an E-mail about Wallace as we were writing this blog post.
"You know, I'm not even a supporter of the death penalty for other reasons," the barrister wrote. "But if we're going to have it why not this guy?. The court's reasoning twists logic.
"For 27 years this guy has been sentenced and resentenced to death. The money spent, victim anguish. Why even seek death on anyone when the system is built to do this. Oh well."