ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – A federal jury on Monday determined Arizona inmate John McCluskey is eligible for the death penalty for murdering an Oklahoma couple during his 2010 prison break.
The jury in Albuquerque found McCluskey meets the necessary criteria for a death sentence for his conviction last month on capital murder, carjacking and other charges stemming from the kidnapping and murders of Gary and Linda Haas of Tecumseh, Okla. The couple was passing through New Mexico in August 2010 on an annual camping trip to Colorado.
To spare McCluskey the possibility of execution, the defense called several neurological experts in support of their argument that he is incapable of controlling his impulses and making reasoned decisions. They cited brain abnormalities, emotional and physical abuse, and a long history of drug and alcohol abuse.
To be eligible for the death penalty under federal law, a person must be at least 18 and have previous convictions for violent crimes. The jury also had to find that McCluskey, 48, willfully and intentionally killed more than one person.
The jury now returns for what is expected to be weeks of additional testimony before deciding whether he should be executed or sentenced to life in prison without parole.
During closing arguments in the first phase of the penalty trial, defense attorney Teri Duncan said jurors should spare McCluskey the death penalty not of out of sympathy, but out of understanding of how his brain works and because of his inability to control his impulses.
Duncan also quoted one of her favorite childhood books, "Bless Me, Ultima," where one of the characters teaches that "when you understand, you see it is not evil."
Prosecutor Michael Warbel, however, argued that McCluskey acted willfully.
"We are talking about what he intended when he pointed that gun at Gary Haas and shot him in the head," Warbel said. "We are talking about what he intended when he pointed that gun at Linda Haas and pulled the trigger twice."
The same jury on Oct. 7 convicted McCluskey of 20 counts of aggravated murder, carjacking and other charges.
McCluskey was serving 15 years for attempted second-degree murder, aggravated assault and discharge of a firearm when he and two other prisoners escaped from a medium-security prison near Kingman, Ariz., in July 2010 with the help of his cousin and fiancee, Casslyn Welch.
One inmate was quickly captured after a shootout with authorities in Colorado, while McCluskey, Welch and inmate Tracy Province headed to New Mexico.
Testimony showed the trio, hot and cramped from three days in a small car without air conditioning, targeted the Haases at a rest stop near the New Mexico-Texas state line for their truck and travel trailer.
Province and Welch pleaded guilty last year to charges of carjacking resulting in death, conspiracy, the use of a firearm during a violent crime and other charges. They both said McCluskey was the triggerman.