A danger in the future? Murder suspect’s life may depend on it

 

McClatchy Washington Bureau

Federal prosecutors predict future dangers if Samuel Richard Stone is allowed to live.

Accused of a gruesome 2003 murder at U.S. Penitentiary Atwater in California’s San Joaquin Valley, Stone is scheduled to face trial next year. Fresno-based prosecutors have Justice Department approval to seek the death penalty if Stone is convicted, based in part on claims of his “future dangerousness.”

It’s a crystal-ball kind of claim that’s given courts, scholars and lawyers some pause in the past.

“How one who is 25 will behave at 55 is very difficult to predict,” Richard Dieter, the executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, said Wednesday. “We’re rather unsuccessful at predicting future dangerousness.”

The American Psychiatric Association says the “unreliability of psychiatric predictions of long-term future dangerousness is by now an established fact within the profession,” and a Texas Defender Service study of 155 inmates in that state concluded that predictions of future dangerous behavior often were proved wrong.

In Stone’s case, during extended pretrial maneuvering, defense attorneys already are challenging the future dangerousness claim.

“There is an institution, the supermax ADX facility in Florence, Colo., where most people are incarcerated if sentenced to life imprisonment after a life-or-death trial, and where it is very unlikely Mr. Stone will commit additional acts of violence against inmates or staff,” defense attorneys said in a legal filing Monday, after an earlier assertion that Stone “has proven his ability to be safely housed.”

In his 33 years, though, Stone also has amassed a long rap sheet filled with violent crimes and disciplinary write-ups; the very picture, prosecutors say, of a man who’s likely to strike again.

“The government does not contend that it is impossible to safely house the defendant, but rather that the defendant poses a risk of causing future harm based on his lengthy history and pattern of harming others, including while incarcerated,” prosecutors said in a June 28 legal filing.

On July 30, 2003, Stone already was serving multiple life terms for two separate murders. That day, the native of the Gila River Indian Community was one of three inmates in a cell at Atwater’s Special Housing Unit. Near dawn, prosecutors say, Stone told a guard he’d killed one of his cellmates, a man named Michael Anita.

“Anita had been stabbed in the chest area approximately 17 times and strangled with a homemade rope,” prosecutors recounted in the June 28 legal filing. “A pencil was forced into one of Anita’s eyes, and a pen into the other. Additionally, Anita had razor wounds to his neck, produced when Stone tried to remove a tattoo from Anita’s body.”

In their March 2012 declaration that they intended to seek the death penalty, prosecutors identified multiple “factors” they’ll seek to prove as the basis for imposing the maximum sentence. These include committing an “especially heinous, depraved or cruel” offense and committing murder while serving a life sentence. The additional “future dangerousness” factor is based on claims that Stone is “likely to commit additional acts of violence.”

After being relocated to another federal prison in California, Justice Department attorney Jacabed Rodriguez-Coss noted in a court hearing last October, Stone “set fires within the special housing unit” and “threatened to cut correctional officers if they enter his cell.” Jurors determining future dangerousness, though, can take into account not just a prisoner’s behavior, but also the secure conditions under which he may be confined.

In a 1976 case that involved convicted Texas killer Jerry Lane Jurek, the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged the challenges posed by predicting future dangerousness while concluding that it can be a legitimate part of sentencing.

“It is, of course, not easy to predict future behavior,” the divided court declared. “The fact that such a determination is difficult, however, does not mean that it cannot be made. Indeed, prediction of future criminal conduct is an essential element in many of the decisions rendered throughout our criminal justice system. The decision whether to admit a defendant to bail, for instance, must often turn on a judge’s prediction of the defendant’s future conduct.”

Jurek ultimately escaped the death penalty after a retrial in which he pleaded guilty to murdering a 10-year-old girl. Now 62, Jurek is serving out his life sentence at the H.H. Coffield Unit, the largest facility in the Texas state prison system.

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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