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One Final Con

Viva LeRoy Nash, the oldest condemned man in America, plots his escape from the executioner

June 26, 2005|Richard A. Serrano | Richard A. Serrano is a Times staff writer. He last wrote for the magazine about a troubled Muslim U.S. Army sergeant.

Deep in the iron bowels of Arizona's death row waits el tigre grandote. The big tiger turns 90 this year. He is the oldest condemned man in America, maybe the whole world. And like the wild beast he claims to embody, Viva LeRoy Nash wants to roam free. He awaits his release by the hand of God or the vengeance of man, whichever comes first, inside Cell 39.

Nash has spent 65 years of his life in prison. Twice he has escaped, making his most recent dash for freedom at age 67. That was in 1982, in Utah. While on the lam, the lanky convict stole a car, robbed a gun dealer, went to Phoenix and acquired a senior citizen's bus pass. Within three weeks, he killed a man--his second murder--during a coin shop holdup out on Thunderbird Road.

But Nash's final con, if he can pull it off, may go down as his greatest caper of all. With his legal appeals creeping through the system for 23 years now, he hopes to cheat the state executioner by dying in his sleep, maybe at 100, a gaunt old man at peace at last. Until then, living in near-total lockdown, plagued by strokes, heart ailments and high blood pressure, he's followed by the specter of death.

After I contacted him late last year, Nash began writing several letters a week to me, some 20 pages long, always neatly printed in black ink, railing against judges, prosecutors and prison guards. At first he played the victim, describing himself as forlorn and friendless, as "one soon-to-be-forgotten old man on the miserable Arizona death row." But within a few months, frustrated that I was not buying his story, he lashed out at me, too, and vowed to outlive all of his persecutors. "This old bastard won't die," he wrote.

Do not pity this old man. I don't. He is a killer. No matter what Nash says, the coin-shop clerk did not fire at him first. Neither the eyewitness nor the bullets he fired execution-style into Gregory West, a 23-year-old newlywed, support his claim of self-defense.

There is an old saying that justice delayed is justice denied, and it has merit. Nash knows it. On every morning that he rises from his bunk, he maintains the upper hand in a national debate over whether society really wants to execute someone his age. The U.S. Supreme Court recently banned the execution of juveniles, and the mentally ill also are spared. What about the elderly?

The Arizona Department of Corrections' death house is a low gray building among a cluster of state correctional institutions an hour's drive east of the Phoenix sprawl, on the same sort of sand and scrub that Nash knew as a boy on the Utah frontier. The son of a devout Mormon mother who christened him Viva after a Spanish ancestor and a father who routinely belt-whipped him, he was in trouble by age 7 for stealing bicycle parts and potato chips. While still a teenager, Nash was sent off to Leavenworth prison in Kansas, where he learned bad-guy vocational skills from the best: older felons.

As a free man again briefly, he was married in Salt Lake City, fathered a son and worked as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman and a mechanic. But the upright life was fleeting. "Otherwise, my whole life has been wasted," Nash tells me during a phone interview.

Nash held up a dance hall. He robbed a gem store. He killed a man, received a life sentence and was sent to a Utah prison, his last address before Arizona's death row.

When given the opportunity, Nash leaves the 8-by-12-foot concrete and steel Cell 39 to shower or breathe fresh air in a small recreation area, where he can bounce a ball or turn his failing blue eyes toward a mesh roof and a patch of desert sky.

"The old man?" says death row guard Oscar Garcia. "You have to help him walk back and forth to the shower. Make sure he doesn't fall."

Former Deputy Warden Madeleine C. Perkins sees Nash as harmless. Until recently it was part of her job to help supervise executions, though it has been five years since a hearse carried away the body of a prisoner killed by lethal injection. Of Nash, she laments, "It's a waste. Really, what's the risk there? What danger is there in a 90-year-old man?"

Even Warden Judy L. Frigo believes that Nash makes a better role model alive than he would dead. She describes him as a "convict," far different from the state's 34,000 "inmates," many of them eager to clash at the slightest provocation.

"A convict like Nash," Frigo says, "if he gives you his word, it's his word in prison. It's good. And he exists in that certain pecking order. There's a mutual respect. . . . We always say we wish we had more convicts."

Another old-timer here, a 74-year-old who murdered his wife's daughter in 1985, developed Alzheimer's disease on death row. His sentence has been stayed indefinitely, explains Kent E. Cattani, chief counsel in Arizona's capital litigation section, because the law mandates that a prisoner must understand why he is being executed.

But age is legally irrelevant. "It does not give you a pass on the death penalty," Cattani says.

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