A prosecutor’s epiphany on capital punishment

On November 8, 2000, Rick Unklesbay watched as Don Miller was killed.

Unklesbay did not intervene.

“In fact,” as he explains, “I was the person most responsible for his death.”

As a veteran prosecutor in Tucson, Arizona, Unklesbay prosecuted a score of capital cases, winning death sentences against 16 defendants—including Miller, who indisputably was guilty of the murder of 18-year-old Jennifer Geuder, a single mother of a 6-month-old boy.

On the night of June 12, 1992, Geuder went to a movie with Joe Anthony Luna, the baby’s father, from whom she was seeking child support—a mere $50 monthly to offset the cost of diapers and formula. Geuder’s bullet-riddled body was found early the next morning by a jogger on the outskirts of Tucson. Police received a tip from a man who said Luna had enlisted him to take part in the murder and mentioned that Miller had agreed to participate.

Miller promptly confessed, saying that he and Luna each had shot Geuder with a .25-caliber pistol. Both men were charged with capital murder—but Luna, the more culpable of the two, pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence. Miller was tried, sentenced to death, and executed by lethal injection with Unklesbay among the witnesses.

One killer dies, while a worse one lives and may someday be released—an outcome that, for Unklesbay, exemplifies “the randomness inherent in capital punishment”—a grotesque incongruence that, he maintains, “should lead us to rid it from our statutes.”

In a just-published book, “Arbitrary Death: A Prosecutor’s Perspective on the Death Penalty” (Wheatmark, $12.95), Unklesbay describes the Geuder case and nine other capital cases he prosecuted over 35 years after joining the Pima County Attorney’s Office in 1981. Of the 16 defendants for whom Unklesbay won death sentences, only Miller and one other has been executed.

The lesson Unklesbay draws from his experience is that capital punishment is “arbitrary and unworkable”—surprising only in that it comes from a prosecutor who often pursued and won death penalties.

“Arbitrary Death” is a compelling, fast-moving little book (135 pages) that ought to be required reading by every prosecutor, every attorney general, every governor, and every legislator in the 30 U.S. states that still have death penalties on their books.

The book is available from Wheatmark: https://www.wheatmark.com/catalog/arbitrary-death-a-prosecutors-perspective-on-the-death-penalty/.

Rob Warden is co-director of Injustice Watch.