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Robert Charles COMER





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Rape - Robbery
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: February 3, 1987
Date of birth: December 14, 1956
Victim profile: Larry Pritchard, 43 (fellow camper)
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Maricopa County, Arizona, USA
Status: Executed by lethal injection in Arizona on May 23, 2007

photo gallery



Comer and his girlfriend, Juneva Willis, were at a campground near Apache Lake. They invited Larry Pritchard, who was at the campsite next to theirs, to have dinner and drinks with them.

Around 9:00 p.m., Comer shot Pritchard in the head, and later stabbed him in the neck. Comer then removed an Emergency Medical Technician badge from Pritchard’s pocket, and Willis hid Pritchard’s body by covering it with wood.

After the murder, Comer and Willis drove to Pritchard’s campsite, where they stole a number of Pritchard’s belongings, as well as his dog.

Comer and Willis then proceeded to the campsite of Jane Jones and Richard Smith, where they posed as “Arizona Drug Enforcement” officers, and ordered them out of their tent at gunpoint. Comer flashed the EMT badge and then tied up Jones and Smith with wire and duct tape, then put them in their truck and stole several items from their tent.

Comer then the truck and when Jones asked to relieve herself, Comer permitted her to do so but accompanied her into the woods and sexually assaulted her.

When the truck ran out of gas, Comer and Jones walked back to Willis, and the three of them then drove together, along with Willis’s two children. During this journey, Comer shot and killed Pritchard’s dog, and sexually abused Jones twice more.

Jones finally managed to escape while Comer was fixing his truck. She was later picked up by a passing motorist. Since March 2000, Comer has been attempting to withdraw his federal appeals so he can be executed. The Ninth Circuit Court granted his request in early 2007.


State v. Comer, 165 Ariz. 413, 799 P.2d 333 (1990) (Direct Appeal).
Comer v. Stewart, 215 F.3d 910 (9th Cir. 2000).
Comer v. Stewart, 230 F.Supp. 1016 (D. Ariz., 2002).
Comer v. Stewart, 312 F.3d 1157 (9th Cir. 2002).
Comer v. Schriro, 458 F.3d 891 (9th Cir. 2006).
Comer v. Schriro, 463 F.3d 934 (9th cir. 2006) (Habeas).
Comer v. Schriro, 480 F.3d 960 (9th Cir. 2007).

Final Statement:

"Go Raiders."

Final / Special Meal:

Fried Okra, 4 Buns with Butter (lots), Salt (lots), Banana Bread (2 slices).


Killer gets death wish

By Judi Villa and Michael Kiefer - The Arizona Republic

May. 22, 2007

FLORENCE - Robert Comer never flinched Tuesday morning as he was injected with a lethal cocktail of drugs that put him to death. Comer took a picture of his daughter into the death chamber with him and seemed defiant as he smiled and maintained eye contact with his witnesses as drugs coursed through his body.

His last words were "Go Raiders!" and with that, his smile slowly faded until he passed out. His chest stopped moving after the third drug was given to him. By 10:08 a.m. he was dead. Just hours before his execution, Comer told prison workers "I am ready."

Comer's execution was not without controversy. Protesters moved on to prison grounds earlier in the morning to voice their objections over the planned execution. However, the Arizona Department of Corrections officials made sure they could not be seen from the main road.

A group of 17 people from Pax Christi USA drove from Phoenix, formed a circle and prayed the Hail Mary. "You don't teach not killing by killing," Ruth Zemek said. Wearing a hat that said "let us not become the evil we despise, abolish the death penalty," Margaret Snider said: "I don't think it accomplishes anything. The crime has been committed. It doesn't make anything well."

However, at least one man from East Valley drove to Florence to support Comer's execution. "This man can never do it again after 10. He can never kill again. They will be safe from this man," said George Williams, the lone pro-death penalty protester. He held a sign saying "Coomer will never murder or kill again"

Williams said he supports the execution because "prisoners escape, murderers get released, people kill prison guards. But not this one."

Gabrielle Smith, manager of a drug store on Main Street, said she was opening the store at 10 a.m., the same time the execution was to start. "You get used to it," the lifelong Florence resident said. "Prisoners escape. Schools get locked down. It's just part of Florence."

Death penalty opponents exhausted their efforts to halt Comer's death, with the U.S. Supreme Court refusing to order a stay of execution. Comer was the first inmate to be put to death in Arizona since 2000.

Nearly 20 years ago Comer was sentenced to death for the brutal killing of a Florida man at a campsite at Apache Lake. He is also serving 339 years for rape and kidnapping. His execution came after he waived his rights to further appeal.

"This is his day. This is what he's been waiting for since 2000," said Arizona Department of Corrections spokesman Bill Lamoreaux. Comer was given his last meal of fried okra, buns, butter, salt, and banana bread at the dinner hour, Monday evening.

About 20 people witnessed Comer's execution. Among the witnesses, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, State Sen. Ron Gould, R-Havasu City, and officials from Phoenix police, Maricopa County Sheriff's and Pinal County Sheriff's departments. Comer was given the opportunity to invite witnesses to watch his death. Those witnesses include his attorneys, Michael Kimerer, Holly Gieszl and Amy Byrd, a pen pal he met in prison.

'I made the decision'

This day is a welcome one for Comer, who has fought to be executed since 2000. Comer spent much of that time just proving he is competent to make that decision, saying he owes it to his victims, society and himself.

Comer was convicted in a 1987 crime spree in which he killed a fellow camper at Apache Lake east of Phoenix. He also was convicted of repeatedly raping a female camper the same night, once in front of her boyfriend. "This is my life. I made the decision to pull my appeals," Comer said, according to transcripts from a 2002 competency hearing. "Remember I stuck a gun in the guy's ear and pulled the trigger, scrambled his brains, right? You sentenced me to die. You have that right in this state. I don't see where the big problem is."

It's hard to believe that the Comer requesting to be put to death is the same man who had to be subdued with a hose, beaten and dragged to his sentencing in 1988. When he was brought into the courtroom strapped to a wheelchair, he was bloodied, barely conscious and naked except for a towel on his lap. His extensive tattoos, including a swastika, were exposed and his shaggy hair and beard were wild. Comer looked every bit the "monster" and "reincarnation of the devil" the prosecutor said he was.

After being sentenced to death, Comer spent the next 13 years making knives and shanks, fighting with prisoners and guards and setting fires in his own cell. He was cited 43 times between 1988 and 2001 for such infractions. But since 2001, he hasn't been disciplined once. Guards, psychologists, lawyers and Comer himself say he has matured, mellowed and become more thoughtful during his prison time, particularly after his best friend in prison, Robert Vickers, was executed in 1999.

Comer's lawyer, Kimerer, described Comer as extremely insightful and wise about life. Kimerer said he and Comer have become close over the years and that he will be "extremely sad" to see him go.

K.C. Scull, who prosecuted Comer nearly 20 years ago, said it doesn't matter if Comer has changed. "He's very cunning, he's very intelligent," Scull said. "I also know he was a very nasty guy, but that doesn't change anything ... Rehabilitation was never a factor in this case. You do things that are so bad, we don't care of you're rehabilitated."

Scull said Comer's case has haunted him, police officers and the surviving victims in the case. "Everybody's entitled to closure here," especially the woman Comer raped repeatedly back in 1987, Scull said. "She has to get up every day and think, That S.O.B. is still breathing somewhere and I wonder if he'd come and kill me if he had the chance,' " Scull said.

Comer was the first inmate to be put to death in the state since Donald Miller was executed on Nov. 8, 2000, for helping murder an 18-year-old woman.


Death Row killer's last words: Go Raiders

By Michael Kiefer and Judi Villa - Reno Gazette

May 23, 2007

FLORENCE, Ariz. -- Robert Comer died Tuesday with a steady gaze and a defiant smile on his face, the first person to be executed in Arizona since November 2000. He was strapped to a gurney and covered up to his neck with a sheet.

There was no sight of the catheter into his groin that made the lethal injection possible, no sight of the executioners on the other side of a wall. advertisement

But Comer was smiling; he had petitioned the federal courts to stop his appeals and hasten his own execution. He was in control of his destiny. Comer brought a picture of his daughter with him to the death chamber and used his last words to say, "Go, Raiders."

Then, the chemicals coursed through his veins - first Sodium Pentathol to render him unconscious, then pancuronium bromide to stop his breathing and paralyze him, then potassium chloride to stop his heart - and he held that smile until he slipped away.

Arizona is gearing up to resume executions after a nearly seven-year hiatus. Another Arizona death-row inmate recently lost his last appeal. A third may be extradited from West Virginia. But as Arizona lapsed in executions, lethal injection, its preferred method, has come under scrutiny as possibly cruel and inhumane.

In fact, a last-minute motion for reprieve filed on Comer's behalf by a Tucson capital-punishment watchdog group raised the risk of extreme suffering as grounds for a stay of execution. The Arizona Supreme Court refused to consider the motion.

Of the 37 states that use lethal injection as a means of execution, more than a dozen have either granted stays or have completely halted executions because of legal or ethical challenges.

The Arizona Department of Corrections does not reveal the exact prescriptions and protocols of its lethal-injection procedures. "Because of the lack of standards provided for in the statute, the lethal-injection process subjects condemned prisoners to significant and utterly unnecessary risks that they will be tortured to death," said public defender Victoria Washington, who, to no avail, has filed motions about the potential cruelty of lethal injection.

Comer, who was sentenced to death for fatally shooting a man in 1987, appeared to die peacefully.

State moratoriums

But anti-lethal-injection lobbyists say the paralyzing drug may prevent the condemned person from showing pain or discomfort. That drug and the fatal drug that stops the heart are said to be extremely painful when administered without adequate sedation. "You don't know what he's feeling when pancuronium bromide is involved," said Lisa McCalmont, a former assistant federal public defender in Oklahoma. McCalmont is considered an expert on lethal injection.

"It masks the viewer's ability to see what pain Mr. Comer is experiencing," she said. "An execution can look peaceful and not be peaceful for him." Though it may be another strategy to stop the death penalty, disputes over lethal injection have spread.

Last year, New Jersey became the first jurisdiction to enact a moratorium on executions through legislation and appointed a study commission to review its capital-punishment system. In June, the District Court for the Western District of Missouri ordered that all executions be put on hold until the Department of Corrections adjusts the execution procedures.

Not enough doctors

Meanwhile in California, the state could not find enough doctors willing to perform executions. Doctors there said executing inmates would violate the Hippocratic oath. The state has proposed a lethal-injection protocol that would involve using the same three drugs but would not require the use of doctors in carrying out executions. The new protocol would increase training to prevent erroneously mixing the drug cocktail. The state has also altered the dosage of the drugs.

A federal judge in California ruled in December that the state's current method of lethal injection was at risk of violating the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The judge said California's "implementation of lethal injection is broken, but it can be fixed." The state is in the process of updating its lethal-injection protocol.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declared a moratorium in December after the botched execution of an inmate. The drugs had to be administered a second time, and it took the inmate 34 minutes to die. Dale Baich, a federal public defender in Phoenix, said, "We have reviewed the state's 2004 execution manual (the last one available) and requested the updates. After further consultation with our experts, we will soon decide whether to challenge the Arizona lethal-injection protocol."

Comer's execution lasted nine minutes from start to finish.

As he was dying, 17 protesters gathered about two miles from the Florence prison to object to Comer's execution. The protest was kept on prison land and could not be seen by passers-by. "Taking a person's life does not bring a person back," protester Dan Wolford said. "His taking a life doesn't justify taking his. He doesn't forfeit his right to live because he took someone else's life."

Regardless of the outcome of the debate about whether lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment, Wolford said, he is vehemently against the death penalty and believes there are other alternatives to protect society. "If you take an eye for an eye, it just makes both people blind," Wolford said.

About a mile down the road, George Williams of Mesa was the sole supporter of the death penalty. Williams held a sign bearing the names of Comer's victims. Williams said execution is the only way to guarantee that a killer won't escape. "This man can never do it again," he said. "He can never kill again."

Robert Charles Comer, his companion Juneva Willis and Willis’s two children, arrived at the Burnt Corral campground in Apache Lake, Arizona on February 2, 1987. The next evening, Comer invited a nearby camper, Larry Pritchard, to dine with him and Willis, and, after the meal, Comer shot him in the head.

It is unclear whether Pritchard died immediately from the gunshot wound or later on. Comer later stabbed him in the neck. Comer then removed an Emergency Medical Technician (“EMT”) badge from Pritchard’s pocket, and Willis hid Pritchard’s body by covering it with wood.

After the murder, Comer and Willis drove to Pritchard’s campsite, where they stole a number of Pritchard’s belongings, as well as his dog. Comer and Willis then proceeded to the campsite of Jane Jones and Richard Smith, campers whom they had met earlier that day.

Remembering from their earlier encounter that Jones and Smith were in possession of a small quantity of marijuana, Comer and Willis posed as “Arizona Drug Enforcement” officers, and ordered them out of their tent at gunpoint. Comer flashed the EMT badge and then tied up Jones and Smith with wire and duct tape. He put them in their truck and stole several items from their tent.

Comer then drove Jones’s and Smith’s truck, while Willis followed behind in his. After a short time, Willis stopped following Comer. When Jones asked to relieve herself, Comer permitted her to do so but accompanied her into the woods and sexually assaulted her. He then sexually assaulted her again in front of the truck.

Comer threatened to kill Smith but Jones convinced him not to do so. Comer instead left Smith in the woods and drove off with Jones. When the truck ran out of gas, Comer and Jones walked back to Willis, and the three of them then drove together, along with Willis’s two children. During this journey, Comer shot and killed Pritchard’s dog, and sexually abused Jones twice more.

Jones managed to escape while Comer was fixing his truck. She was later picked up by a passing motorist and taken to the sheriff’s home. Smith, too, had managed to walk back to the Burnt Corral campground and had reported the incident to the Department of Public Safety. The police quickly apprehended Comer and Willis.

Comer and Willis were charged in Maricopa County with the first degree murder and armed robbery of Pritchard and the armed robbery, kidnapping, and aggravated assault of Jones and Smith.

In addition, Comer was charged with two counts of sexual abuse and three counts of sexual assault of Jones. Willis subsequently pled guilty to one count of kidnapping in exchange for agreeing to testify against Comer. The other charges against her were dropped.


Arizona Department of Corrections

DOB: 12/14/1956
Gender: MALE
Height: 74 inches
Weight: 185 lbs. Eyes: Brown
Admission Date: 04/11/1988
Sentencing County: MARICOPA
Case #: 8701352


Presiding Judge: Ronald S. Reinstein
Prosecutor: K.C. Skull
Defense Counsel: Roland Steinle, Ann Hutchins, and Stephen Venezia
Start of Trial: January 6, 1988
Verdict: January 21, 1988
Sentencing: April 11, 1988

Aggravating Circumstances:
Prior convictions involving violence
Pecuniary gain
Especially heinous, cruel or depraved

The information on this webpage was compiled by the CCADP without the previous knowledge or consent of the prisoner. The CCADP is refusing to remove any Arizona prisoner materials from the internet until the law banning prisoners from the internet has been challenged and defeated, to ensure ALL Arizona death row prisoners are allowed to have their voices heard... Prisoners contacting the CCADP for removal under threats from the DOC receive a copy of the following: CLICK HERE

Robert Comer - Fighting to Die - Arizona Death Row
Conditions so harsh, prisoners would rather give up appeals...

For more than two years, Comer has sought permission from a federal court to drop his criminal appeals, which would expedite his trip to the death house. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals instructed U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver in June 2000 to determine "whether Mr. Comer's conditions of confinement at SMU II constitute punishment so harsh that he has been forced to abandon a natural desire to live."

News About Robert Comer
Photos of Robert Comer

Write to Robert directly at:
Robert C. Comer #067151
Arizona State Prison - Eyman
PO Box 3400 SMU II
Florence, Arizona 85232 USA

News About Robert Comer:

"Prisoner longs to hurry death," by Rhonda Bodfield. (ARIZONA DAILY STAR) Robert Comer has been called the most dangerous man in the Arizona prison system. His death row cell in Florence is 7 feet by 11.5 feet. An expert psychiatrist concludes it is one of the most physically isolating places he's seen. Comer, 45, who murdered a man in 1987, wants to drop his appeals and die as soon as possible.

His attorneys say he's not qualified to make that decision. The lawyers convinced the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (news - web sites) that prison conditions may be part of the reason he's now embracing death after years of fighting it. That panel ordered the U.S.District Court in Phoenix to determine his mental competency and then to answer whether he's making a voluntary decision or whether conditions are so harsh that he feels he has no choice. The ruling is expected later this month.

The question, really, is whether the human brain is wired to survive intact in the absence of nearly all stimulation and personal interaction.

While the case hinges on Comer alone, it could affect the fate of others. If the state loses, it may be forced to change how it deals with difficult inmates or risk similar court battles. Meanwhile, prisoner-rights advocates are contemplating a legal challenge to the way Arizona runs its "supermax" prisons.

Supermax prisons operate on the theory that locating problem inmates in one highly controlled facility makes the rest of the system more manageable. Arizona's two supermax facilities can house 1,700 prisoners, 127 of them death row inmates. They're there for the duration, as are prison gang members, juveniles tried as adults and mentally ill prisoners with behavioral disorders.

Then there are the temporary boarders: Those who continually act out are sent there for at least six months but can go back to the general prison population if they behave.

Comer is in a particularly sterile place. It doesn't help that he's had about 40 violations since entering prison in Arizona in 1988, some for setting his cell on fire. He's known for his knack for manufacturing crude knives.

His cell has no bars and no view of the outside world. Instead, he looks out at a concrete wall through a metal grid punctuated by half-inch holes. Over that - because he has thrown liquid at officers and assaulted an inmate walking past his cell with a sharpened metal tip on a tightly rolled paper pole - is a layer of transparent Plexiglass through which he has to yell to be heard. It muffles sounds coming in, like earplugs.

Correctional officers in the unit wear visors and body armor. Inmates can't see each other, because they all face the same way. Comer has no furniture but a bed and toilet. His desk was taken away because he cut a 22-inch piece of metal off of it last year with a lighter wheel. It wasn't until the past few months that he's had a radio and a television. With few exceptions, this is where he lives every hour. Every week, he is allowed three showers, one five-minute phone call and three hours in a stark, only modestly larger recreation cell, with no athletic equipment and a metal mesh ceiling. On the rare occasions when he leaves his pod, he is transported shackled, face down on a gurney.

In its decision, the 9th Circuit noted Comer's habit of pacing morning to night, 12 to 20 hours at a time, to keep from becoming, in his words, "a veggie." He has calculated that 300 laps is a mile. He does 30 to 50 miles a day. He punched a wall a year ago because he wanted "to feel something somewhere other than inside my head."

Death row "volunteers," as such prisoners as Comer are called, are nothing new. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh (news - web sites) was only the latest and most celebrated. Defense attorneys are often in the uncomfortable position of arguing that the state should not assist in government-sanctioned suicide, even in the face of criticism that they are using their clients to advance their own anti-death-penalty views.

Three groups of attorneys are involved in Comer's case, including his original attorneys Pete Eckerstrom and Julie Hall, of Tucson. Comer has appointed a new counsel who is siding with state attorneys who say he should be allowed to make the decision.

Of the 38 states that have reinstated the death penalty, most have a supermax prison. Texas alone has 16. Florida in 2000 made its push to join the ranks. Its corrections commission cautioned that while there has been little assessment of the effects of locking someone in such a cell for 23 hours a day, some studies have found it can lead to depression, uncontrollable rage, delusion and paranoia. But prison officials also say it is needed for security.

"As far as the allegation that it makes them worse, do you understand how ludicrous that is?" asked Department of Corrections Director Terry Stewart. "Here we're dealing with a human being who either won't behave in prison or he is a predator and you can't leave him in the general population. What else are we going to do with him? "Where he is is a function of who and what he is."

If it's safe, said attorney Eckerstrom, it's also "extremely creepy." On one tour, he said, a man howled in a nearby cell. One paced. Another was curled into a fetal position, sleeping, in midafternoon. "The people were behaving the way you would see animals behaving at a bad zoo," he said.

It's difficult to determine what shaped Comer. He apparently wasn't abused by his middle-class parents. He went fishing, got average grades and was one badge away from Eagle Scout. A psychiatrist who evaluated him suspects he was twisted in part by the California penal system, where he served a five-year stint in 1978 for rape and kidnapping.

He did part of that time in Folsom's segregated housing unit, which would later be declared "cruel and unusual punishment" by a U.S. District Court. Inmates there spent 24 hours a day in windowless cells, 5 feet by 8 feet, infested with rats and the stench of human excrement. The usual term was 30 days. Comer spent five months.

In a 1987 letter to a friend, Comer recalled fearing that Folsom's gray walls were going to close in and squash the life out of him. He wrote that he could feel his mind shut down, piece by piece. "I used to mess with the rats," he wrote. "I never could figure out how they got in. At night they would crawl on you. . . . I used to talk to the rats at first. After four months, they talked back."

Later he would write it was in those cells he "learned about the Bible and found there is no God." He saw four knifings on Folsom's main yard and started making shanks. In a court affidavit, he said that at first he thought he could put it behind him, but "I now know that once they take your humanity, you never get it back."

In 1987, only three years after getting out of the California prison, Comer murdered a stranger at a campground near Apache Lake, then kidnapped and raped a woman camping nearby. She escaped and he was captured.

He didn't attend his trial. He tried not to attend his sentencing. Angered because guards had made his handcuffs too tight earlier, he tried to stab them with a handmade shank. He was flushed out of his cell with a high-powered hose and attended the hearing, bruised and shackled to a wheelchair, naked but for a cloth over his lap, his head drooping toward his shoulder.

Comer refused to comment for this story, but details of his life are outlined in court records and in 10 hours of testimony during a three-day hearing in March before a federal judge, asking that his appeals be waived. He comes across as an articulate man who prides himself on doing crossword puzzles in ink without a dictionary.

Two expert psychiatrists disagree on whether he's competent. Dr. Sally Johnson, a North Carolina psychiatrist who has worked on celebrity cases including the Unabomber and John Hinckley, said she believes he is competent.

Dr. Terry Kupers, a California expert brought in by Eckerstrom who has written a book about abysmal mental health care in prison, says Comer suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome, which could distort his reasoning. Kupers says Comer's testimony during the hearing was a 180-degree turn, adding he believes Comer is saying what he thinks the court wants to hear. While he once said that "waking up every day is worse than dying" and that he doesn't believe in the death penalty, he now says he wants to pay his debt to society and could do more time "standing on my head."

Prisoner advocates have suggested basic changes such as more rehabilitation services, more windows and an outdoor recreation yard. "It might be nice, but is it realistic?" asked Director Stewart. "Absolutely not."

The Arizona Attorney General's Office agreed in court filings: "This case is not a forum to evaluate alternative methods of running a prison."

That forum, though, may be coming. Eleanor Eisenberg, director of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union, said her organization is weighing a range of prison issues for possible litigation, from supermax facilities to health care and discipline policies.

That's no idle threat. In March, a federal court approved a settlement between the ACLU and Wisconsin's Corrections Department. The settlement forces improved medical coverage, better recreational facilities and vocational training. Under the agreement, prison officials can no longer call the unit "supermax" or refer to the inmates as "the worst of the worst." "There's a lot of support in the literature that the mental health of anybody in those conditions for any period of time is going to deteriorate," Eisenberg said. "Most people who are in prison are going to get out of prison. It seems to me our interest should be to have people come out of prison not worse than when they went in, and ideally better prepared. They aren't getting there in complete isolation and in the absence of any rehabilitation, psychological counseling or jobs skills development."

In his writings to the court, Comer said that unlike his victim, he can still think and hope and dream. "I will say it's just time to end it," he wrote. "I've a lot of hate in me, that is what those lawyers mean about the incarceration. But that's for somebody else to worry about, how to quit creating monsters."


Arizona's Worst Criminal

Infamous killer Robert Comer now says he's the one who should die

By Paul Rubin - Phoenix New Times

May 2, 2002

Soon after Robert "Gypsy" Comer awakes each morning, he starts walking. Comer knows that 300 laps around his cell makes one mile, and he keeps track of how far he's gone. He walks for hours on end, doing his time with a kind of Zen focus, trying not to indulge in fantasies about life on the outside. Comer calls it keeping his head in the box.

The "box" is on death row, located at Special Management Unit II (SMU II), a super-maximum institution at the Arizona State Prison in Florence. Except for a few hours a week, he is locked in this box around the clock.

Authorities have dubbed Comer the most dangerous inmate of the 28,000 in the state's prison system, something the 45-year-old murderer and rapist doesn't deny. He's a legendary bad boy among staffers and inmates, partly for his uncanny knack of shaping shanks -- prison talk for knives -- and other weapons.

Comer exists in a harsh and desolate netherworld, where some of the most vicious people that society has spawned are doomed to spend their remaining days.

In April 1988, a Maricopa County judge sentenced Comer to death, a year after the California native committed one of this state's most horrifying and high-profile crimes of the era.

On February 3, 1987, Comer murdered a stranger at a campground near Apache Lake. He then raped a woman who'd been camping with her boyfriend at an adjacent site, kidnapped her, and continued to sexually assault her. The woman escaped into the rugged wilderness, and made her way to safety after almost 24 harrowing hours. Police captured Comer and a female companion after an extensive search that ended atop a hill in remote Gila County.

Comer fit the stereotype of a madman killer, in part because he looked like a larger, even more feral version of Charles Manson -- long, wild hair, bulging eyes, heavily tattooed. Trial prosecutor K.C. Scull told jurors that Comer was the "reincarnation of the Devil on earth." The panel responded with guilty verdicts on all counts.

These days, Robert Comer appears as presentable as a con with four teardrop tattoos etched into the left side of his face possibly can. He keeps his hair short, he's clean-shaven, and he's generally polite with strangers. He even has a girlfriend, a nurse named Amy Young, who visits him once a week. Even more surprising, he's articulate, intelligent and chillingly unsparing about the evil acts he has committed. "I killed for no good reason and screwed up the lives of many innocent people," Comer told New Times in an April 15 interview, the first time he's ever spoken to the media. "I think it's just time for me to pay the price."

By "price," he means his execution by lethal injection, and as soon as possible. For more than two years, Comer has sought permission from a federal court to drop his criminal appeals, which would expedite his trip to the death house.

But it's uncertain if Comer will get his wish, because of a cutting-edge legal question raised in June 2000 by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. That court instructed U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver to determine "whether Mr. Comer's conditions of confinement [at SMU II] constitute punishment so harsh that he has been forced to abandon a natural desire to live."

In other words, has Comer's life at SMU II -- as unrelentingly secure as any penal facility in the nation -- so twisted his thinking that he's incapable of making a rational decision about his own survival? "We have grave concerns that a mentally disturbed man may be seeking the court's assistance in ending his life . . ." the appellate court wrote.

Comer's appellate attorneys agree he's incompetent to drop his own appeals, mostly because of years in isolation at SMU II. They claim Comer is trying to commit suicide at the state's hands. The inmate counters that attorneys Peter Eckerstrom and Julie Hall have put their own opposition to the death penalty ahead of his interests. "They never said anything about my competence until they found out I want to be executed," he says. "All of a sudden, I'm just nuts, incompetent."

In late 2000, Judge Silver appointed a second set of attorneys to represent Comer on the competency issue, because of the inmate's disenchantment with Eckerstrom and Hall. Those attorneys say he's eminently qualified to discontinuehis appeals. Silver held a three-day evidentiary hearing at her Phoenix courtroom in late March to help with her decision. The session drew remarkable testimony from the killer himself, who explained why he wants to die.

"A couple years ago, I'd have chopped your head off just for looking crossways at me," Comer told the judge. "For no reason at all. I'm still the same guy as I was back then. But a lot of things have meaning for me now, like my victims. It's just time to end it."

Legal experts around the nation anxiously are awaiting Silver's ruling. If she decides Comer's years of isolation at SMU II have rendered him incompetent, and appellate courts uphold her ruling, other death row inmates being held in super-max units are likely to be affected. The judge is expected to rule in a few weeks.

Robert Comer historically has been a defense's attorney's nightmare -- uncommunicative, unsympathetic and guilty of the crimes with which he's been charged. Records show Comer spent little time with his court-appointed attorney after his 1987 arrest for murder and rape and other offenses. He chose not to attend his seven-day jury trial, though, in hindsight, it wouldn't have mattered much.

Comer had the same chance at his trial as he'd allowed his victims at Apache Lake -- none.

His murder victim, Larry Pritchard, was a drifter whose fatal mistake was settling down for the night at the same campground as Comer. He died from a bullet fired at close range, after which Comer cut his throat. The motive seems to have been a combination of robbery and an intense desire to kill.

Tracy Andrews was spending the evening with her boyfriend, Richard Brough, at a nearby campsite. Comer hog-tied Andrews to a vehicle, and forced Brough to watch as he raped her the first time. Andrews made an especially compelling witness, telling a rapt jury how she'd later escaped Comer's clutches and fled into the wild.

It didn't help matters when she described how Comer had shot Pritchard's purebred beagle after murdering the man. (Comer has denied shooting the dog.)

His attorneys presented little by way of defense or mitigation. After the conviction on all counts, Judge Ronald Reinstein demanded Comer's presence at sentencing, a memorable event.

First, Maricopa County jailers rooted Comer from his cell with high-powered water hoses, truncheons and fists. Comer tried to stab them with a nine-inch-long shank during the clash. Finally, he was strapped to a wheelchair, and pushed into Reinstein's court.

Naked except for a towel draped over his genitals, he sat before Reinstein slumped and mute, his face bloodied from the jailhouse struggle, his body a mélange of indecipherable tattoos, the very image of a modern-day monster.

The judge sentenced Comer to death, and added more than 300 years on the rape-related convictions. Later that day, April 11, 1988, authorities delivered Comer to death row in Florence, then located on Cellblock 6 at the main prison complex. It wasn't his first incarceration in a maximum-security institution

Robert Charles Comer's mother wrote the following in her journal, shortly before giving birth to him in San Jose, California. "I feel that it will be a boy because only a boy can kick like this baby," Patricia Comer wrote on November 29, 1956.

Comer's history of violence and crime is told in thousands of pages of legal documents, psychiatric reports and other paperwork that have become public record over the years. Still, it remains something of a puzzle how Comer evolved from a personable kid who finished one badge short of being an Eagle Scout into a stone-cold killer.

He was raised in a middle-class family, the oldest of Patricia and Charles Comer's four children, all boys. His father was an engineer for a technology firm, and his mother worked as a quality-control inspector in Silicon Valley. Photos of a youthful Comer depict a good-looking kid with an impish -- some might say devilish -- grin. He loved to fish and was a member of the school safety patrol, and played football for a time.

Comer's journey to death row started when he was detained as a juvenile in the early 1970s on charges of assault, burglary and trespassing. He quit high school during his senior year, and enlisted in the U.S. Army in January 1975. (Comer later earned his diploma by passing a GED test.)

He was training to become a military policeman when his past caught up with him. In July 1975, Army officials issued the 18-year-old an honorable discharge after learning of his juvenile record. The next year, Comer served four months in a California youth facility on a burglary rap, during which he became a member of an offshoot of the Aryan Brotherhood.

After that, his crimes escalated. In December 1978, police arrested Comer on charges of kidnapping, rape, assault with a deadly weapon, and other counts. He plea-bargained to a relatively soft prison term of seven years, and was sent for the first time to an adult prison.

Comer later admitted to having been involved in several stabbings during his prison stint, some as perpetrator and others as recipient. Still in his early 20s, he spent months in solitary confinement at the prison in Folsom, California, a profoundly violent institution.

Years later, Comer wrote about Folsom from Maricopa County Jail while awaiting his trial for murder and rape: "I remember feeling my mind shut down, one piece at a time. I used to mess with the rats. I never could figure how they got in. At night, they would crawl on you. At first, it bugged you. But just like love, or the girl you left behind, you turned them all off. You live like a robot. . . . I used to talk to the rats at first. After four months, they talked back. You think you're going crazy, so you don't talk with the rats no more. . . . After 6 or 7 months, all your mind could say was, 'Fuck you.'"

Comer was released in August 1984 after he'd served less than six years, and found sporadic work as a carpenter. He tells New Times he used methamphetamines heavily during his 30 months of freedom after being paroled, and became increasingly determined to seek revenge against society for evils perpetrated against him at Folsom.

In February 1987, that revenge would take the form of murdering a stranger, then repeatedly raping a young woman. On April 11, 1988, Arizona State Prison authorities put Robert Comer in a death row cell near its most infamous convict of the day, Robert Wayne Vickers. "Bonzai," as Vickers had dubbed himself, already was a mythical character in the Arizona prison system. He'd murdered two fellow inmates who allegedly had "disrespected" him, and had carved his misspelled nickname into the back of his first victim.

Inmates in proximity to Vickers feared him like no other, and kept their distance. But he and Comer soon realized they were kindred spirits. "He was not just a friend, he was my brother," Comer testified at his March hearing. "We spilled blood together. We kept each other going, watched each other's back, survived day to day. . . . Everybody knew if they messed with one of us, they had to take both of us. You don't find that in prison. I would give my life for him, as he would for me. We shared loyalty, honor, tribe, brotherhood, friendship and kinship."

Authorities found Comer and Vickers so problematic that they yanked the pair off death row, and put them in a segregated pod, a precursor to Arizona's super-maximum units.

Super-max prisons came to the fore in the early 1990s as officials struggled to deal with increasingly violent offenders. Now, SMU II houses about 720 inmates, including those on death row. The facility also is home to the most uncontrollably violent, the seriously mentally ill, and those designated as "STGs," or members of the Security Threat Groups -- gangs.

In May 1996, officials placed Comer and Vickers in the Violence Control Unit at the new SMU II, an even more secure facility. A year later, authorities moved the pair and the other men on death row into a wing of SMU II. (As of last week, 127 condemned men are incarcerated in that wing. The two women on death row are at the Perryville prison west of Phoenix.)

All the while, Comer's automatic appeals of his criminal convictions continued to grind through the state legal system, then through federal court. The Arizona Supreme Court affirmed Comer's convictions in July 1990. In 1994, the State of Arizona issued a warrant of execution, another step on the inmate's circuitous road toward death by lethal injection.

That year, Comer signed paperwork requesting the appointment of so-called "habeas counsel." Such attorneys dissect the record for any possible flaws that might lead a federal court to reconsider the death sentence. Tucson attorney Peter Eckerstrom became lead habeas counsel, and he quickly won a stay of Comer's execution as he pursued the appeal. He was joined several years later by co-counsel Julie Hall.

Comer tells New Times he'd basically forgotten about his appeal until after he officially decided to seek execution in early 2000. "Surprised the hell out of me," he says. "Then I thought, 'Oh, well. I'll just have to get the courts up to speed about where I'm at on this.' But it hasn't quite worked out that way."

Robert Vickers was executed by lethal injection in May 1999. Bonzai's death sent Comer into a months-long funk, and he vowed revenge. That August, he fashioned yet another shank, on which he inscribed his late friend's nickname. Comer sneaked the weapon into the recreation area, but corrections officers subdued him with tear gas before anyone got hurt.

Months later, the inmate decided to get on with something he says he'd long been contemplating. "I wanted to let them know they didn't have to play any more games with Comer no more, that I wanted to pull my appeals," Comer tells New Times. "It wasn't about my life in my box, because I can take that or leave that. I can live in that box just fine. It's just the right thing to do."

In March 2000, he mailed several handwritten letters to judges and prosecutors that repeated those sentiments. Comer's habeas lawyers say they were stunned by Comer's letters, and tried to talk him out of it.

On April 15, 2000, attorney Julie Hall sent a 17-page handwritten letter to Comer -- whom she'd never met. The missive was a deeply personal plea to her client. "Dear Gypsy," the letter started, "The things I am going to say are sincere and from my heart, and not some line of bullshit from a lawyer." Hall told Comer how much she hates SMU II, and how bad she feels after speaking to her clients through the Plexiglas there. "A glass wall that tries to tell people, this person you are looking at is not a person; it is a specimen of evil that we removed from society. But I know the glass wall is lying, because when I look through it, I am looking at a friend."

Hall -- whose sole legal focus is appealing death-penalty convictions -- said she understood how Comer's destructive experiences at the Folsom prison had affected him: "The story that needs to be told in your case is that society has to share in the responsibility for the death of the man you were convicted of killing. That society helped pull the trigger that night."

Even that overwrought plea didn't work. Comer remained determined to die by lethal injection.

Volunteering for execution isn't as rare as it might seem. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that capital punishment is constitutional, more than 90 convicted murderers have asked to be put to death -- including 60 since 1996.

When the Ninth Circuit received Comer's letter, it already had been considering his criminal appeal -- the one written by Peter Eckerstrom. The court expressed concerns about Comer's mental state, and how that may intersect with his life on SMU II. That took on added significance when Judge Warren Ferguson noted that the inmate's request to die came amid "serious questions about the constitutionality of his conviction and sentence."

That comment strongly suggests the panel -- known in legal circles for its civil libertarian bent -- is considering overturning Comer's death sentence, maybe even his murder conviction. But the court in June 2000 put the Comer case on hold until it hears from Judge Silver on two critical issues:

If Comer is legally competent to waive his appeals.

• If his decision to speed up his execution truly is voluntary.

In late 2000, Silver appointed Phoenix attorneys Mike Kimerer and Holly Gieszl to represent Comer's desire to expedite his execution. Kimerer is one of Arizona's most respected criminal-defense attorneys. Gieszl mostly does health-care litigation, not criminal-defense work.

But she slowly won Comer's confidence -- no small feat -- by visiting him almost every week at SMU II, sorting out his complex, often mercurial moods, listening to his point of view.

Kimerer and Gieszl say they're anti-death penalty, but have had no problem pursuing their unorthodox mission -- to help Comer convince the courts that he should be allowed to die by lethal injection.

On the other side, habeas attorney Peter Eckerstrom felt compelled to explain that the fact he and Julie Hall also are strongly opposed to the death penalty has little to do with their trying to stave off Comer's execution. "While it is true that we possess a moral opposition to the premeditated and unnecessary taking of any human life, those personal views are entirely irrelevant to these proceedings," he wrote Judge Silver last November. "We have an overriding duty to represent the interests of our client. Our view of the phenomenon of the death row volunteer is that it represents a form of suicide that we would never endorse, encourage or assist."

Even though Comer doesn't want them as his legal advocates, Eckerstrom indicates he and Hall will resign from the case only if Silver agrees to let the inmate drop his appeals and the Ninth Circuit upholds her ruling.

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." "Physically?" "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.

Finally, it was Comer's turn. During questioning by Holly Gieszl, he came across as a man who has spent many hours contemplating his past, his present and his future: "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. I pulled my appeal. I owe that to them. I owe it to myself, man. I was totally wrong. . . . God, you guys are a lot more humane to me than I ever was to Larry [Pritchard]. Remember I stuck a gun in this guy's ear and pulled the trigger, scrambled his brains, right?"

What came next was an extraordinary dialogue between a jurist and a killer. A no-nonsense former prosecutor, Silver asked Comer direct questions, and he answered them thoughtfully and, by any definition of the word, competently. "This has to do with me being tired," he told the judge. "Has to do with me paying my debt to society. Let's do it. I don't know what everybody's so scared about. Death is not that damned bad. Living ain't that damned bad. But I killed Larry . . ."

Comer agreed that his life on SMU II is no joy ride. However, contrary to Dr. Kupers' conclusions, he testified he's been able to survive it intact: "I don't believe I have a life that will make me jump up and down and clap my hands and go to a party or nothing. Within the limits that I have, I try to live it fully . . . I mean, I can't get a weekend pass to go to the bowling alley, and I love to bowl. But I don't live dead in that cell."

Comer said he should be locked up at SMU II because of his violent streak: "I'm the guy who they invented super-maxes for. They let me out and walk around the halls, I'll get along just like everybody else. Except I have this problem. Someone runs their mouth at me, I deal with it."

Silver continued to grill Comer about that life. "It seems Dr. Kupers is saying that your traumatic experiences in prison -- and elsewhere -- has been so bad that you're unable to cope now, and that this has affected your decision to voluntarily decide the most fundamental decision in life, which is to live or die. You understand?" "Yes."

"Why should I think, and why should any court who reviews my decision, if I should agree with you, believe that you're not just saying that in order to end your life now, because it's so bad?" "Ma'am, I've spent 15 years in an isolation cell. Already. And look at me. What is wrong with me that I'm hiding? What am I hiding?" "I don't think anybody would question that you have enormous capacity for human endurance, enormous capacity," Silver responded. "But I have heard you say a number of times that you're tired." "I am tired. I'm not depressed, but tired."

Comer had indicated earlier that he's against the death penalty, which led the judge to ask him, "If you don't believe in the death penalty, how can you voluntarily decide to take your life, unless you're being overwhelmed by your conditions such that you just want to take your life?"

"It's the law," Comer said, sounding more like a prosecutor than a convict. "Just because I say the law's wrong doesn't make the law wrong. I just don't believe in it. I was sentenced to die, legally sentenced to die here."

Silver noted that Comer may yet win a new trial in his murder case. "Yeah," Comer replied, "it's a good appeal, but it's for you all, not for me. I killed Larry Pritchard. There is no doubt about that. So [prosecutor] K.C. Scull called me a monster. What was I trying to make him call me? Sure didn't want to be called Goldilocks."

"Do you understand you could be found not guilty?" the judge asked. "Yes, ma'am." "And I presume that you don't believe that that's really much of a possibility, am I right?" "No, ma'am." "And why?" "I did it."

On April 6, Judge Silver drove to Florence to see for herself how inmate Comer lives. What she saw was this: Comer's cell measures about eight feet by 11 and a half feet. A narrow bed is attached to the back wall, with a thin, baby-blue blanket neatly tucked under its mattress. At the foot of the bed is a television, which prison officials recently provided as a reward for Comer's staying out of trouble for almost a year.

Prison officials won't allow him to hang photographs or memorabilia of any kind on his walls. Beneath the bed are boxes of legal and other reading materials. Near the front of the cell is a metal toilet and small wash basin, with a few other sanitary items lined up above it. A tiny mirror is attached to the wall above the basin.

The four other cells in Comer's pod also have a small stool and metal "desk" attached to the wall near the sink. But a few years ago, prison officials removed those items from Comer's cell because he somehow was fashioning shanks from them. (He's apparently put his shank-making on hold since last May, when he made the one in tribute to the anniversary of Robert Vickers' 1999 execution.)

Comer and the others in his pod wear headphones when listening to the radio or watching television. That makes for an eerie silence, punctuated only by the occasional clanging of the metal doors. To add to the isolation, the front of Comer's cell is metal mesh with a small slot that opens and closes for food and other deliveries. Another inmate on SMU II once compared it to looking out at life -- a blank concrete wall in this instance -- through a colander.

Attached to the mesh is a supposedly unbreakable Plexiglas-like covering called Lexan, designed to keep dangerous prisoners such as Comer from having access to passersby with blow darts, zip guns and the like. Because of the covering on all five cells in his pod, Comer cannot converse easily with his peers. He says it's like talking with cotton balls in his ears, so he doesn't say much to anyone.

Every non-prisoner who steps into Comer's pod must wear a protective jacket and safety glasses. He is allowed three hourlong "recreational periods" -- by himself -- each week in an enclosed outdoor space near his pod. It looks like a handball court with a metal-mesh ceiling. (Prison officials may provide a handball to inmates.) He may take three showers, each lasting up to 45 minutes. Comer is allowed one five-minute phone call weekly, and may receive approved visitors for two hours, once weekly. He may visit with his attorney twice weekly, for up to three hours.

Whenever Comer leaves his pod, officers handcuff and shackle him to a gurney, then move him, face down. They also fit him with a stun belt, which zaps him if he makes sudden, pronounced movements.

Spending time in Comer's cell feels like being trapped in a tomb: It's easy to understand why he walks endlessly, and why he says he tries not to dwell much about life outside his box. SMU II isn't for anyone, really, including Comer, but he's adapted to life here as well as anyone could. Physically, this super-max is a safer place for those around Comer, and for the inmate himself. Mentally, he seems as normal as any violent career criminal that one might ever meet.

Instead of having to watch his back every second, Comer dabbles with crossword puzzles, writing letters to Amy Young, perusing his legal papers, and watching the tube.

"I am not Hannibal Lecter, but I'm not that far away from being him, either, under the right circumstances," he tells New Times. "Know what I mean?"


Execution Is Constitutional But Death Row May Be Illegal

By Robert Anthony Phillips

June 15, 2001

Do conditions on death row cause some condemned prisoners to give up their appeals and volunteer for execution?

Some lawyers believe they do and the issue will soon get a hearing before a federal court in Arizona.

In a case being watched closely by other criminal defense lawyers trying to defend so-called death row "volunteers," Arizona sole practitioner Julie Hall argues that the "human mind is not wired" to survive the isolation of death row and triggers some prisoners to give up their appeals and ask for death.

Hall is one of the lawyers representing Robert Comer, 44, a rapist and killer who wants to drop his appeals and die by lethal injection. During his career, Hall has represented two other so-called death row volunteers, both of whom eventually got their wish and were executed.

But in the Comer case, Hall and another lawyer managed to temporarily derail the condemned killer's death wish by convincing the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit last June that Comer's isolation on death row may have played a part in his volunteering for execution.

A hearing in federal district court in Arizona will be held on the volunteer issue and Comer's competency later this summer. Read the appeals court decision: Comer V. Stewart 98-99003)

Sole Practioner Fighting the Battle

While defense lawyers routinely challenge the competency of condemned inmates wanting to be executed, Hall said that to her knowledge, it is the first time a federal court has ordered a hearing on whether conditions on death row may have caused a condemned prisoner to volunteer.

Hall, who works exclusively on federal death penalty appeals, failed to prevent the executions of two other death row volunteers, Donald Miller and child killer Daren Bolton. In the Miller case, Hall was appointed as a "next friend" to attempt to continue appeals on Miller's behalf.

Hall said that Miller suffered severe depression most of his life and the isolation on death row was "tortuous" and inflamed his desire to die. "There is no way that combining his mental illness and the conditions in that prison that he could make a voluntary decision to be executed," Hall said.

Death Row Impact

A key to the Comer case will be psychiatric studies and testimony arguing that prisoners kept in long-term maximum security housing suffer anxiety, confusion, a sense of unreality, depression and are prone to violent behavior. Isolation supposedly has more dramatic affects on condemned prisoners already suffering from mental illness.

Hall said that Comer has been kept in isolation for more than 12 years and his mind has been affected.

Like most death penalty states, Arizona isolates condemned prisoners in a special management unit. Arizona death row is located in Florence, with condemned prisoners fed in their cells, locked down 23 hours a day and allowed no contact visits.

Camilla Strongin, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Corrections, said condemned prisoners are isolated from the general prison population because they have proven by their crimes that they are a danger to other prisoners and guards.

Comer was sentenced to death for shooting a man at a campground in 1987. Following that murder, Comer then went to another campsite, hogtied another man and raped the man's girlfriend while the victim watched, prosecutors say.

Before being sentenced to death in Arizona, Comer had spent years in a segregation in a California prison for other crimes, Hall said. Since arriving on Arizona death row in 1988, Comer has been cited for 37 violations of prison rules including possession and manufacture of weapons and arson, prison officials said.

Pati Urias, a spokeswoman for the Arizona attorney general's office, said that prosecutors believe Comer is competent to make the decision to die and that death row conditions are fair and humane.

Comer refused to be interviewed for this article. According to a prison official, when asked if he wanted to do the interview, Comer responded, "I hate reporters more than lawyers."



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