Judge sentences Wisconsin inmate to 27 months of prison for helping cellmate commit suicide

JUNEAU, Wis. (AP) — A Wisconsin inmate was sentenced to 27 months in prison Friday for assisted suicide after describing how he helped his cellmate, a killer, hang himself last year.

Joshua Walters, 21, said he agreed to help Adam Peterson take his life after hearing for weeks about how much he wanted to die. Peterson, 20, was facing life in prison on a first-degree intentional homicide charge in the 2008 stabbing death of Madison man Joel Marino. He felt horrible about killing Marino and for letting down his family, Walters said.

On the evening of Jan. 10, 2009, Walters said Peterson was intent on killing himself. Walters said he tried to talk him out of it at first, but then agreed to help in what his defense lawyer called an act of compassion.

"I got up and tied the bed sheet real, real tight on the end of the bed," Walters said. He said he put his arm through it to make sure it would function as a noose. "I said, 'Do what you do. I'm going to bed.'" He said he then went to sleep and woke up later to find Peterson hanging, and called for help.

Walters apologized to Peterson's father, Melvin Peterson of St. Paul, Minn.

"I'm very sorry for helping your son do that," he said. "I should never have done this. It was a stupid move on my part."

Melvin Peterson said he felt no anger toward Walters and urged him to turn his life around after he is released from prison. But Adam Peterson's mother was less forgiving.

His father read a letter from his ex-wife, Phyllis Schultz, who wrote that Walters had "a dark personal agenda to see my son die." She said his actions took away her ability to ever hug her son again.

Dodge County Circuit Court Judge Andrew Bissonnette said Walters likely had a greater role in the suicide than he acknowledged. He said he believed a prison informant who said Walters not only tied the noose but also opened it for Peterson, put a towel around his neck and then moved a chair so his twitching legs would stop kicking it.

Walters and his attorney, Randall Doyle, accused the informant of exaggerating the story so he could be removed from isolation.

Bissonnette said Peterson was clearly suicidal, having attempted to kill himself before, but "I'm not sure he would have been able to pull this off on his own." He said Walters' sentence of 27 months in prison followed by 27 months of extended supervision should serve as punishment and a message to other inmates.

Dodge County District Attorney Bill Bedker had asked for 30 months in prison and then 3 years of extended supervision under the terms of a deal in which Walters agreed to plead no contest last week. He said the facts of the case were so chilling that he worried Walters was on a path to one day commit murder, a claim the judge discounted.

He said Walters' actions not only took Peterson's life but also robbed Marino's family of the ability to confront Peterson during a sentencing hearing and a chance for closure in their son's death. Peterson had pleaded guilty to stabbing Marino, 31, during a random burglary attempt in his Madison home.

Walters, through his attorney Doyle, asked for a sentence of 18 months behind bars. But Doyle suggested that was too harsh given prior sentences in two previous assisted suicide convictions in Wisconsin.

Doyle said his client couldn't stand to watch as his cellmate's mental health deteriorated every day and didn't realize that assisted suicide was a crime.

"Adam stated that he had trouble tying a noose and so Joshua tied the noose for him," Doyle said. "He thought that he was helping out a friend and helping a friend end their misery. That's not homicide. That's compassion."

But Bissonnette said the case differed from other assisted suicide cases in that it did not involve a terminally ill patient. While Peterson was mentally ill, he was getting help from prison officials and could have learned to live a productive life behind bars, Bissonnette said.

"You've got a vulnerable victim in a prison setting and Mr. Walters assisted in ways that were essential" to the death, the judge said.

The sentence will begin after Walters, who had a rough childhood in Texas before moving to Wisconsin as a teenager, finishes an earlier four-year term in August. He was sentenced after breaking into a gas station in 2006 to steal cigarettes and later violating the terms of his probation.

The two men were placed in the same cell at Dodge Correctional Institution in Waupun, Wis.