Arizona prisoner Robert Charles Comer is entitled to get his wish to die. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded Thursday that Comer is competent and therefore capable to drop further appeals of his murder conviction and death sentence.
He was convicted of a 1987 murder near Apache Lake, and his court-appointed attorneys have filed appeals while he awaited execution. Comer has objected to further appeals and insists it is his right to be executed.
The court acknowledged there were some things about Comer’s sentencing that raised questions about whether his constitutional rights were violated. Most notable was that he was brought into court for sentencing while he was nearly naked, bleeding, shackled and exhausted.
Comer’s attorneys also raised questions about whether his desire to abandon his appeals was due to harsh prison conditions. He is being held at the state prison in Florence.
But the judges said there was “no dispute” that Comer is competent. They said he told a federal judge in Phoenix that prison conditions were not the major factor in his decision to halt further appeals “nor are they so harsh as to force him to abandon his natural desire to live.”
Thursday’s ruling, however, may not clear the way for Comer to finally be put to death.
Julie Hall, one of the attorneys appointed by the court to represent Comer, said she cannot say whether the ruling will be appealed — over Comer’s objections — to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Comer himself has declined requests by Capitol Media Services for a phone interview from prison.
Testimony during Comer’s trial showed he and his girlfriend, Juneva Willis, were at the Burnt Coral campground near Apache Lake when Comer fatally shot another camper and stole the man’s belongings. Later than night, Comer and Willis kidnapped a couple, and Comer raped the woman.
Willis eventually pleaded guilty to kidnapping as part of a plea deal for a 9-year sentence and testified against Comer. He did not show up for his trial and was convicted of first degree murder and multiple counts of kidnapping, assault, robbery, rape and sexual abuse.
Thursday’s ruling was not unanimous.
Judge Harry Pregerson said Comer’s legal rights were violated during his sentencing hearing. He said Comer should be resentenced, even if that ultimately results in what both state prosecutors and Comer both say they want: his death.
Comer was not in the courtroom for the trial in which he was convicted. Nor was he at his pre-sentencing hearing.
He finally was in the courtroom the day of sentencing, naked except for a towel covering his midsection. His body was slumped and his head drooped.
After determining he was conscious, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Ronald Reinstein sentenced him to death.
Pregerson said if Comer is to be sentenced, even to death, it should be “pronounced to an understanding human, not a discarded piece of flesh.”
Comer himself has tried to push things along.
Last year, in hand-written pleadings, Comer asked the judges to let him “do what I am allowed to do by law, and that is to end the pursuit of the appeal of my death sentence and rid myself of the fanatical anti-death penalty nuts.”
Defense attorney Michael Kimerer, who had been brought into the case solely to deal with the competency issue, noted that if Comer had wanted to, he had the legal right to plead guilty at his trial. In fact, he said plea agreements by their nature involve defendants giving up their legal right to a trial.
Comer, in his note to the court, stated that he is entitled to exercise that right now.
“I have a right to stop the appeals,” Comer wrote. “I have a right to atone for my sins against society.”