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May 2, 2013

Alabama mass shooter wants (but cannot get) a death sentence rather than LWOP

A helpful readers sent me this fascinating article from Alabama, which is headlined "Man charged in Copper Top shooting writes in letter to judge that he is sorry and had asked for death penalty."  Here are the fascinating details:

Nathan Wilkins, the man charged with injuring 18 people in a July 2012 shooting at The Copper Top bar in downtown Tuscaloosa, told a judge in a letter that he is sorry and that he has asked for a death sentence.

In the letter dated April 22 sent to Tuscaloosa County Circuit Judge Brad Almond and filed Tuesday morning, Wilkins wrote that he has issues with his court-appointed attorney. "I know I can't get a fair trial in Tuscaloosa," the letter states. "It is obvious by your actions so far in making me keep the same lawyer that you appointed. I have written you telling you the problems with him but instead of taking care of it you chose to ignore it. Why would I want a lawyer representing me who has me already convicted and sentenced me to life in his mind."

In a letter sent to the judge in December, Wilkins asked for a new attorney and told the judge that he had no memory of the night. He also wrote that he had been prescribed medication that made him suicidal.

Wilkins, 45, was indicted in August on 68 counts in connection with a July rampage that included a late July 16 shooting in the Indian Lake subdivision in Northport and an early July 17 shooting at the Copper Top in downtown Tuscaloosa's Temerson Square. He is accused of using an assault-style rifle in the shootings and of setting fire to his former employer's property in Brookwood and in Northport.

Wilkins turned himself in on July 17 at a FedEx store in Jasper. He remains in the Tuscaloosa County Jail on $2 million bond. A trial has been scheduled to begin Monday.

"I had asked Ted Sexton and my lawyer to give me the death penalty but instead they want to put me in prison for life because it wasn't bad enough because no one died," the letter states. "Why send me to prison for life and support me with taxpayer money. That used to make me so mad when I wasn't in jail and paying taxes and had to support people like that. You can ask anyone who knows me that this is what I believe. So I am taking this out of your hands and sentencing myself to death."

Attempted murder is not included with capital offenses under Alabama law. "I cannot bear to be away from my family especially my grandkids for life," the letter states. "I would like to tell all involved I am sorry. I wish this incident would bring attention to prescription sleeping pills, especially Ambien, before it ruins someone elses (sic) life!  I want to say I'm sorry to everyone involved. Thank you for giving me no other choice."

This story raises so many interesting and challenging issues, I am not sure where to start.  Just discussion purposes, let me ask three different questions of three different groups of potential readers:

1. For strong death penalty opponents: "Do you think this defendant, who seems all but certain to get an LWOP sentence for his many crimes, should be allowed/enabled to commit suicide if and when he gets an LWOP sentence?"

2. For strong death penalty proponents: "Doesn't this case demonstrate that there are some defendants who truly view an LWOP sentence to be worse than death?"

3. For everyone else interested in a constitutional debate: "Do you think that, because (a) death has been deemed by the US Supreme Court to be a "cruel and unusual" punishment for Nathan Wilkins's crimes and (b) he really seems to view LWOP a punishment worse than death, is there at least a reasonable basis for his lawyers to claim that LWOP for Nathan Wilkins should also be considered "cruel and unusual" because their client (genuinely?) views such a punishment to be crueler than death?"

May 2, 2013 at 04:04 PM | Permalink

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Comments

I think people who commit serious crimes are justly provided punishments and do not think they should be allowed to avoid them by committing suicide. Functionally, if this guy really wanted to, he can commit suicide at some point, unless the state really really tries to stop him. This has been shown by experience. But, no, I would not have the state in effect help him get a short sentence (at least in this world) because he wants to die. That's a bit silly.

The answer to #2 is "sure." Few cases, but sure. The DP supporter would say "who cares" and note that they deserve to die and/or might hurt others.

As to #3, there might be a thought experiment, but the USSC decided things in categorical ways. The personal beliefs of a litigant that their sentence is too lenient as a question of policy, morality or personal hardship is not enough. Washington v. Glucksberg rejected a constitutional right to assisted euthanasia even when there was a short time left to live though maybe five justices would have said otherwise if there was excruciating pain or the like otherwise. Five justices probably wouldn't say that now. Life in prison is not of that nature.

Posted by: Joe | May 2, 2013 5:22:33 PM

Has the Supreme Court ever really squarely held that the death penalty cannot be used for attempted murder where there was no question that the defendant intended to kill, but by dumb luck the bullet missed or the victim's woulds were non-fatal? I mean, I'm not laying money on which way Justice Kennedy would jump if the issue were actually forced in a live case (nor am I faulting Alabama for arranging its statutory scheme to avoid forcing the issue), but has it been? Certainly Enmund v. Florida seems focused on the fact that felony murder theory could inappropriately impute exposure to capital punishment to an accomplice who was neither the shooter nor had any subjective homicidal intent, and the focus on that lack of intent would seem to leave the issue of attempted murder where there's no lack-of-intent issue open for another day. There is certainly some loose talk in the case law about the general unavailability of capital punishment for "nonhomicide" offenses, but who knows whether attempted homicide is a nonhomicide offense (although apparently at least one state court has recently concluded it is for purposes of juveniles avoiding exposure to LWOP).

Posted by: JWB | May 2, 2013 5:24:08 PM

"Do you think this defendant, who seems all but certain to get an LWOP sentence for his many crimes, should be allowed/enabled to commit suicide if and when he gets an LWOP sentence?" "

Yes.

"Why send me to prison for life and support me with taxpayer money. That used to make me so mad when I wasn't in jail and paying taxes and had to support people like that. You can ask anyone who knows me that this is what I believe."


If this is true then such statements were in effect his living will. Some people want you to pull the plug, some do not. He want to pull the plug. Let him.

Posted by: Daniel | May 2, 2013 5:32:30 PM

I have advocated adding the cruelty of LWOP to the arguments favoring the death penalty. Whether it is less cruel should be left to the defendant to decide. One may then count what fraction chooses which penalty. Sole benefit of LWOP? Generate government make work jobs.

No question, the death penalty is less cruel to everyone else, guards, fellow prisoners, visitors, since LWOP is an absolutely immune license to kill.

All repeat violent offender should be offered facilitated suicide with generous rewards, 1) visits from high end hookers, 2) top restaurant meal, 3) dispatch with euphoria inducing chemicals ("die high"); 4) organ donations and payment of their market value to the estate, not subject to crime victim creditors; 5) if the prisoner reneges, takes these benefits, but refuses to commit suicide, he consents to being shot in the head in his cell.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 3, 2013 12:44:22 AM

It is I
Nemo Me Impune Lacessit


Death by exsanguination in his cell would allow „ if healthy blood „ donation of several liters of blood to the American Red Cross .

More organ tissue would be available by avoiding shooting in the head + the added savings of no need for possible bio cleanup .


… 4) organ donations … ; 5) if the prisoner reneges, takes these benefits, but refuses to commit suicide, he consents to being shot in the head in his cell.

Supremacy Claus – 3 May 2013 Friday 00:44:22 EDT

Posted by: Just Plain Jim | May 3, 2013 11:09:38 AM

2. For strong death penalty proponents: "Doesn't this case demonstrate that there are some defendants who truly view an LWOP sentence to be worse than death?"

Indubitably some few do view it as such; not relevant.

Justice demands the death penalty, and LWOP is such a paltry deterrent, do any deny?

"..I believe there are some crimes..so heinous that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage
by meting out the ultimate punishment."-- B.H. Obama, 2006, The Audacity of Hope

"If an offender has committed murder, he must die. In this case, no possible substitute can satisfy justice. For there is no
parallel between death and even the most miserable life, so that there is no equality of crime and retribution unless the perpetrator is judicially put to death."— I. Kant, 1797, Doctrine of Right

Posted by: Adamakis | May 3, 2013 11:18:44 AM

Kant was wrong. The philosophical argument has developed considerably since his time. Amongst other things it fails on the test of contradiction. You cannot argue that it is wrong to kill unless you (proxy the state) do it. Kant also ignored the test of what it is to be human. A fundamental quality of that is respect the life of others. Because you perceive that another does not, it degrades your own humanity if you mimic that in your life.
This case has similarities with that of Ted Cole, sentenced to death in Texas in, I think, 1998. In 2010 he was resentenced to LWOP after the Supreme Court threw out his death penalty sentence. In 1998, he too declared that he would rather be executed than face life in prison. Over the years, with the help of friends, he developed into a man perhaps unrecognizable from the one convicted of murder. Some of that story was written about in a book published in 2003 by his friend Margot Aczel, From Death Row With Love (0954519604). Treat another human being with true humanity and you can transform a life. That's so much more worthwhile, fulfilling and human.

Posted by: peter | May 3, 2013 12:42:41 PM

This is a testament to LWOP being a more unpleasant alternative to the death penalty. It costs much more money to put someone to death, and sitting alone in a small cell for 70 odd years seems like a terrible punishment to me.

Posted by: Juan | May 3, 2013 2:49:04 PM

Juan's first and second sentences seem somewhat contradictory unless you are the prisoner and even there few really would care about the cost. The person in LWOP doesn't merely spend time in a small cell. Also, the person has a life, if a very restrictive one. A person with an physical malady that leads to something similar very well might not wish to die. It's quite possible to think of some who rather die in these cases though as Peter suggests, they sometimes change their mind.

Posted by: Joe | May 3, 2013 3:31:04 PM

Alabama's statutory scheme controls, of course, so there is no death penalty available. But it is an interesting question whether a death sentence could be constitutional. You've got Coker and Kennedy v. Louisiana standing for the general proposition of non-homicides being categorically non-death-worthy. (Not to mention Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Alabama reinforcing the distinction - incidentally lower courts have universally applied Graham to attempted murder convictions, as far as I know.) But neither Coker nor Kennedy involved an intent to kill, and, perhaps more importantly, neither involved an intent to commit a "mass homicide."

If memory serves, treason and terrorism are often cited as the possible/probable exceptions to the death-penalty-only-for-homicide rule. This Alabama case was not a "terrorist" incident, but it was an attempted mass killing. If the Boston Marathon bomb had not killed those three people, would the crime still be punishable by death? I think it is possible under federal law (or even if not under the current US Code, I think such a statute could be constitutionally adopted). So if it would be constitutional to seek death for setting a bomb that injures hundreds of people, would it also be constitutuional to seek death for shooting up a bar and injuring 18 people? 4 people? Where is the constitutional line?

Posted by: anon | May 3, 2013 5:13:07 PM

Kennedy v. LA noted: "Our concern here is limited to crimes against individual persons. We do not address, for example, crimes defining and punishing treason, espionage, terrorism, and drug kingpin activity, which are offenses against the State." The addendum also suggests "military death penalty" rules might be different. The Boston Marathon incident very well might count as "terrorism" even w/o loss of life. I would note that the drug kingpin category is off to me. How is that an offense against the state?

Posted by: Joe | May 4, 2013 12:41:03 AM

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