Va. inmate pleads guilty to second prisoner murder

A Virginia inmate who warned officials he would kill again if not given the death penalty for murdering his cellmate pleaded guilty Friday to killing a second inmate.

A Wise County judge took Robert Gleason Jr.'s plea under advisement, but said he would not accept it until after Gleason undergoes a mental health evaluation, said Gleason's attorney, Greg Kallen. Such evaluations are standard in capital cases.

The judge will decide April 22 whether to accept the plea.

Gleason, 40, pleaded guilty to the July 28 murder of Aaron Cooper at the maximum security Red Onion State Prison in far southwest Virginia. Gleason has told The Associated Press and a judge he persuaded Cooper to try on a necklace while both were in separate cages in the recreation yard and then strangled him with a noose fashioned from torn bedsheets.

Gleason already faced the death penalty for the May 2009 murder of his cellmate, 63-year-old Harvey Watson Jr., at nearby Wallens Ridge State Prison. Gleason has pleaded guilty to Watson's murder and is set to be sentenced for it Feb. 22.

On Friday, he fired his attorneys in that case, saying he preferred to go into the sentencing representing himself.

"I'm not on a suicide mission, Your Honor," Gleason told a judge in December. "I'm just trying to prevent another death, and keep a promise to someone that's really close to me."

Gleason told the judge that after he killed Watson in 2009 that he was sent to Red Onion, where a corrections officer put metal in his food. Fearing his life was in danger, he said he told a close friend that he would kill an officer, but the friend made him promise not to.

"I gave my promise not to harm another CO, but I know me, and the only way to keep that promise was to tell the truth on everything at trial, and the jury would in fact sentence me to death," Gleason said.

In court and in an interview with The Associated Press last spring, Gleason warned he would kill again if he wasn't given the death penalty for Watson's murder.

In December, he told the judge he blamed the warden and head of security at Red Onion for not taking his threats seriously. He said after a prison attorney told him he was not going to get the death penalty for Watson's murder he decided to kill 26-year-old Cooper, who was serving 34 years for crimes including carjacking and robbery and was housed in the segregation unit with Gleason.

Gleason, who was serving life for killing a man in 2007, said he was so sure he would kill Cooper in the recreation yard on July 28 that he wrote to an investigator beforehand telling him to come see him about the murder.

Gleason said officers failed to properly search him before he went onto the recreation yard, and that he concealed the noose in a long-sleeved shirt he took outside on that hot afternoon.

Prisoners in segregation at Red Onion are isolated except for one hour a day, when they are placed in separate outdoor cages for recreation.

Wise County Commonwealth's Attorney Ron Elkins said guards noticed Cooper's body when they came to return Gleason to his cell. Gleason said Cooper had been dead for about 45 minutes by then.

"I am somewhat relieved that justice is finally being done in my son's favor, because it's been nearly seven months since his death and they knew who had done it right after it happened," said Cooper's mother, Kim Strickland. "I thank God for this uplifting news. It couldn't have come at a better time."

Prison officials refused to comment on the death or an investigation into the incident.

Gleason says he will not appeal if given the death penalty.

"Something must be done with me, Your Honor," Gleason told the judge in December. "I said before and I'll say it again, and here's a third chance to stop another homicide. I think my actions speak louder than my words."