Man set for execution won’t help efforts to spare life

Associated Press

Atlanta — A Georgia death row inmate whose scheduled execution is fast approaching has consistently refused to help efforts to spare his life but has seemed to waffle over the years about whether he actually wants to die, his lawyer said.

Steven Frederick Spears, 54, is set to be put to death Wednesday. He was convicted of murder in the August 2001 slaying of his ex-girlfriend Sherri Holland at her home in Dahlonega, about 65 miles northeast of Atlanta.

Spears’ trial attorney Allyn Stockton described his client as a complex and intelligent man with a dark sense of humor who is wary of trusting people. Stockton told The Associated Press in a phone interview that they’ve had a decent relationship over the years, but that Spears has rejected his efforts to communicate in the last year.

Death sentences in Georgia are subject to an automatic direct appeal. Typically, if the sentence is upheld during that process, cases wind their way through post-conviction appeals proceedings in state and federal courts. Authorities in Georgia generally don’t set an execution date until those appeals have run out, but Spears has taken the unusual step of declining to initiate post-conviction proceedings.

Stockton learned earlier this year that an execution date was likely to be set and began writing to Spears. Those letters have gone unanswered. Spears has also refused to see him, most recently on Monday, when he’s visited the central Georgia prison that houses death row.

When asked if his client wants to die, Stockton said, “It appears he’s got in his mind that he’s willing to be executed.”

Over the years, though, Spears has exhibited a pattern of hopelessness alternating with a desire to live and make the best of his situation, Stockton said.

The state is unequivocal in its desire to see his sentence carried out, and Holland’s family is “supportive of the process,” Enotah Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jeff Langley said.

“This was a very vicious, premeditated, planned killing, and therefore I don’t have a lot of qualms about the execution going forward,” he said. “There’s not a significant legal question about his competence or about his guilt.”

Spears told investigators he killed Holland because he suspected she’d become romantically involved with someone else. He came up with four separate ways to kill her, he said, and ultimately choked her, wrapped tape around her mouth and face and put a plastic bag over her head.

“I loved her that much. I told her I wasn’t letting her go, and I didn’t,” Spears told investigators, adding that he’d do it again if he had to.

The State Board of Pardons and Paroles, the only authority in Georgia with power to commute a death sentence, has scheduled a clemency hearing for Tuesday. Stockton said he’ll ask for mercy, while Langley plans to argue for Spears’ execution.

The defense team was limited at trial because Spears refused to let them delve into his troubled family history or to suggest he wasn’t of sound mind, Stockton said.

He made it clear that if they went against his wishes he’d get on the stand to “advise the jury that if they don’t give him the death penalty he was going to get out one day and kill them,” Stockton said. “Not that he would do that, but he was going make sure they gave him the death penalty if we tried to mitigate.”

Spears also turned down a plea deal that would have sent him to prison for life without the possibility of parole.

“His position was, ‘People in my family either die of old age or cancer, and neither one of those in prison sounds like a good alternative to me,’ ” Stockton said.

But he later wrote to Stockton that he wished he’d taken the plea. In another letter he quoted a line from “Authority Song” by John Cougar Mellencamp that says, “dying to me don’t sound like all that much fun.”

Stockton said he’d like to ask his client, the only death penalty defendant he ever represented, how he feels about his apparent fate.

“I wish I could spend a little time with him, just to tell him goodbye if nothing else,” Stockton said.