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June 29, 2017

Murderers admit they went on prison murder spree in order to get death sentences

Regular readers know that I think one of the hardest conceptual and practical issues for death penalty abolitionists is what to do about killers already serving life without parole sentences who go on to kill again while in prison. If the death penalty is completely eliminated, these offenders may conclude there is no real punishment if they kill again.  But this recent AP article, headlined "Inmate: I Strangled Prisoners to Try to Land on Death Row," reports on the awful reality that a pair of killers serving LWOP in a South Carolina prison apparently were inspired to go on a murder spree because of the presence of the death penalty. Here is the start of a horrible story:

One by one, Denver Simmons recalled, he and his partner lured inmates into his cell. William Scruggs was promised cookies in exchange for doing some laundry; Jimmy Ham thought he was coming to snort some crushed pills.  Over the course of about a half-hour, four men accepted Simmons' hospitality.  None of them made it out alive.

Calmly, matter-of-factly, the 35-year-old inmate told The Associated Press how he and Jacob Philip strangled and beat their blockmates to death and hid their bodies to avoid spooking the next victims. They had nothing against the men; one of them was even a friend, Simmons admitted.

Why did they do it? Convicted in the cold-blooded shootings of a mother and her teenage son, Simmons knew he would never leave prison alive.  Tired of life behind bars, a failure at suicide, he hoped killing these criminals would land him on death row.

Officials say Philip and Simmons have confessed to the April 7 slayings of Ham, 56; Jason Kelley, 35; John King, 52; and Scruggs, 44. But until Simmons talked to the AP, no motive had been made public. The South Carolina Department of Corrections doesn't allow in-person interviews with inmates.  So the AP wrote letters to the two men. Philip's attorney responded with an email: "Jacob is a severely mentally ill young man who has been so adjudicated by the court. Accordingly, I would ask that you make no further efforts to interview him or contact him."

Simmons, though, called the AP three times, once using another inmate's time slot. And he described a twisted compact between two men who had "a whole lot in common" from the moment they met — most important, both despair and a willingness to kill again.

"I'd always joke with him — from back in August and September and October of 2015 — that if we weren't going to kill ourselves, that we could make a name for ourselves, so to speak, and get the death penalty," Simmons, told the AP. "The end of March of this year, he was willing to do it. So, we just planned to do it. And we did it."

Each man was serving life without the possibility of parole for a double murder....  Both men were sent to Kirkland Correctional Institution, a maximum security facility a few miles from the state capitol in Columbia. They were being housed in a unit for inmates who need significant mental health help but whose conditions aren't serious enough to require hospitalization.

Simmons said spending the rest of his life in prison would be a meaningless life of fear and boredom. Inmates are always scheming to take advantage or hurt fellow prisoners and guards only see the men behind bars as numbers. "It's just not a good place to live, you know, day in and day out," Simmons said.

June 29, 2017 at 11:31 AM | Permalink


"It's just not a good place to live, you know, day in and day out,"

Oh I don't know, it could be worse, he could be sleeping in Kellyanne Conway's basement on an air mattress.


Posted by: Daniel | Jun 29, 2017 11:37:42 AM

Why not just allow assisted suicide if the inmate desires?

Posted by: Erik M | Jun 29, 2017 11:49:30 AM

As to the opener, as I also note, how do places without a death penalty handle it?

In part, there actually are "real" punishments available even there, including restrictions that in some cases might seem small to some, but less so to those in 24/7 confinement.

If life in prison is so hard for them, seems somewhat dubious to "help them out" by executing them & even there, it will take a while. Plus, perhaps, like in other places, there is a way to make life in prison a bit less meaningless.

Finally, I'm open to Erik M's idea up to a point, though since they are after all in prison, the fact that they rather not be really really punished like that is unsurprising. Helping them out by reducing their sentences is a bit complicated.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 29, 2017 12:07:27 PM

Anyway, if Texas suddenly passes a law that says it will only execute those who kill in prison and the like, it will be like if it back in the day only allowed slavery for a similarly tiny number. Abolitionists would not be totally happy, but be pleased.

Even there, people for the death penalty might make an exception for "severely mentally ill" people. What do we do with those judged not guilty by reason of insanity who kill in mental institutions? Might just be that there is no panacea, just one way that on balance is the best.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 29, 2017 12:13:24 PM

If one accepts this as an argument against DP, then one must accept the other argument when those with LWOP feel an impunity to kill.

In any event, there should be a mandatory DP for crimes like this . . . . and the federal courts should have no jurisdiction to review conviction/sentences.

Posted by: federalist | Jun 29, 2017 1:04:52 PM

Being pro-criminal, and more likely pro-lawyer rent, this article has been selected to make a point. The presence of the death penalty made people lose control and kill to get it. The murders are being blamed on the death penalty here. This is a ridiculous idea from the lawyer Twilight Zone, where up is down, and wrong is right.

As an abolitionist now, a sincere one, my suggestion is the European solution. These inmates would be found hanging, or would have thrown themselves off the deck, in Europe. Problem. No procedure. No appellate hearings. No legal costs. No lawyer jobs.

Posted by: David Behar | Jun 29, 2017 6:29:08 PM

The numbers (Bureau of Justice Statistics) show pretty clearly that in-prison homicide rates are lower in abolitionist jurisdictions.

And now with a sequence of states ending executions over the last decades there should be even better data for same-state homicide rates with and without the threat of execution.

Posted by: Boffin | Jun 29, 2017 9:17:39 PM

There are also many studies and first-person testimonials that some have and will kill in order to receive the death penalty. The death penalty is an incentive to murder.

Such a great country is the U.S. that they can't manage their prisons in any safe or humane way.

Such a great country are we.

Posted by: Stephen Douglas | Jun 30, 2017 1:47:14 PM


If you think these two are examples of an incentive to murder, what do you think of the 99.8% of capital murderers that do everything they can to avoid the death penalty?

First, let's see if either one of these murderers even qualifies for the death penalty. We know they have mental issues, by prior evaluation.

Secondly, let's see if either of them stands trial, pleads guilty, asks for the death penalty in the punishment phase, get's the death penalty, then waives appeals.

About 140 (1.7%) out of 8400 sentenced to death "volunteered". But the 8400 only represents those who got death during trial, not those getting a lesser sanction and not all the other death eligible cases that never went to trial, or were tied with no death penalty eligibility, none of whom, but the minute 140, "volunteered".

I suspect that a minute number of the 140 committed their murders in order to get the death penalty, amking my 99.8% generous.

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Jun 30, 2017 5:27:13 PM

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