Why Did the Arizona Department of Corrections Put a Mentally Ill Man in a Cell With a Convicted Killer?

Jasper Rushing is reflecting about why he pummeled, slashed, and mutilated his seriously mentally ill cellmate to death last September 10.

"It was not a healthy environment in there," he tells New Times from his current residence at the Maricopa County Jail.

Rushing is talking about what happened inside Cell A-26 in Building A of the Buckley Unit at the Arizona State Prison-Lewis Complex in Buckeye. It is a so-called isolation cell within the larger protective segregation unit.

He speaks with unsparing clarity about Shannon Palmer's murder at his hands inside a cell designed for one person, not two.

"It makes no sense at all to put a murderer in a cell living assholes-to-elbows with a guy who is crazy and probably shouldn't be in prison at all. Bad things can happen in a house like that.

"I can deal with just about anything within reason in prison. All I basically need is light, running water, and a book, and I'm okay. I guess this wasn't within reason.

"Day after day and night after night of his paranoid bullshit, and his disrespect for women and children. It was almost pitch-black in there because they couldn't fix the lights. I couldn't read or think straight. This is what can happen."

What did happen is that Jasper Rushing decided Shannon Palmer needed to die.

It was much the same as in 2001, when Rushing, at age 20, murdered his stepfather because he became convinced the man had raped a young family member (no evidence of an assault ever emerged). Rushing shot the sleeping man to death inside a Yavapai County trailer.

He was sentenced to a minimum of 28 years in prison after his first murder conviction.

When Rushing was assigned to A-26 on August 19, 2010, his new cellmate, Palmer, was nearing the end of a three-year sentence for criminal damage.

Palmer's "victim" was a Salt River Project power pole in Mesa, which he scaled during an August 2008 thunderstorm, forcing the utility to shut off power in the area until authorities finally talked him down.

Police reports said Palmer had a photograph of his daughter (he'd lost parental rights a few years earlier) with him.

The 40-year-old long had been haunted by unbearable mental problems. Diagnosed years earlier with paranoid schizophrenia, he was fixated on government officials he was sure had implanted a device into his thigh allowing evildoers to control his thoughts and actions.

Palmer's fragile mental state was such that he had spent time earlier in 2010 in a Phoenix prison ward reserved for only the most seriously mentally ill inmates.

But by his older sister Dawn's account, he was not on any anti-psychotic drugs when he died, which was very unfortunate.

It wasn't that Palmer, with no known history of committing violent acts, was a danger to anyone but himself. But he couldn't help expressing his thoughts, which could be delusional, jumbled, and inappropriate.

What happened in Cell A-26 just before 1 p.m. last September 10 is not in great dispute:

First, Jasper Rushing bashed his cellmate several times in the head with a makeshift "club" made of books wrapped tightly in a small sheet. (Rushing chose not to include the tome Rights of Prisoners, which was visible in crime-scene photos.)

Then he grabbed a small shank he had fashioned with the blade of a disposable razor that prison officials remarkably had allowed him to have in the cell.

Within seconds, he had gouged open the unconscious Palmer's throat on two sides, the gaping wounds as wide and long as a middle finger.

Blood spewed and spattered against the cell's gray walls, quickly gathering in a puddle on the concrete floor.

Finally, Rushing pulled down Shannon Palmer's orange prison-issue pants and hacked off the dying man's penis.

Then he quietly waited for someone in authority to come by, which took two or three minutes.

Palmer died within a half-hour, despite the fierce efforts of corrections officers to save him.

"He was very calm," one of the officers later said of Jasper Rushing's demeanor at the scene. "It was like the sky is blue, the grass is green, there's a nice breeze blowing."

This is one homicide that definitely doesn't qualify as a whodunit.

Jasper Rushing committed first-degree murder and did so in a heinous fashion. He faces the death penalty when his case goes to trial, perhaps sometime next year.

No doubt, Rushing will die in prison — whether or not the state of Arizona kills him by lethal injection.

What is more pressing than Rushing's fate are questions that surfaced after Shannon Palmer's frightful — and preventable — murder.

First, why and how did Arizona Department of Corrections officials stick a psychotic short-timer in a tiny cell with a smoldering killer who had no hope of getting released for decades?

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin