Arizona's clemency board narrowly turned down a death row inmate's pleas for mercy on Thursday, five days before his scheduled execution for beating another man to death in 1987.
Thomas Paul West, 52, his attorneys and two psychologists argued at Thursday's hearing that sexual abuse as a child by three different men forever changed him and led to post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Arizona Board of Executive Clemency could have recommended that Gov. Jan Brewer lessen his sentence to life in prison, but they voted 3-2 to allow it to proceed. Board member John LaSota argued strongly to recommend reducing West's sentence to life, saying that he didn't deserve to be executed.
"It isn't the sort of cold, calculated murder that is the worst of the worst," LaSota said. "As this man sits here and as this crime occurred, he is not the sort of person the death penalty should be imposed upon."
But the majority disagreed without comment, voting against West and bringing him another step closer to his execution, set for Tuesday. If it proceeds, West will be killed almost exactly 24 years after he beat Donald Bortle to death while robbing his home just outside Tucson. Bortle's decomposing body was found in a closet on July 17, 1987, covered in blood and his hands tied behind his back.
West fled Arizona but was arrested in Hodgkins, Ill., during a traffic stop soon after the crime. He had four boxes of Bortle's belongings, mostly electronic equipment.
West, shackled and wearing an orange jump suit, sat in a metal cage Thursday about 10 feet from board members throughout the hearing and as they made their decision. He apologized repeatedly for the crime, and said he thought Bortle had survived the beating when he left his house.
"I did not realize I hurt him that bad," he said. "I thought he was up and walking around and safe by the time I got to the end of the block."
West also apologized to Bortle's son David Bortle, who attended the hearing by phone.
"It was wrong and never should have happened," he said. "As ridiculous as it was and as hollow as it sounds, I really am sorry for your loss."
He said he knows that Bortle's five children and other family members have been affected by his death in ways he can't imagine and that he wants them to find peace in their hearts.
David Bortle said it was time for West to take responsibility for the choices he made.
"Mr. West is now begging for mercy but he showed my dad no mercy at all," he told the board, adding that he believes his father would have lived at least another 20 years. "Mr. West took those years away from our dad and our family, resulting in my dad missing the birth and life of his seven grandchildren."
West's attorneys argued at the hearing that West's father was verbally and physically abusive and that West was sexually abused by a teacher, a neighbor and a priest at various times in his childhood, leading to his recently diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. The priest has been convicted of abusing other boys, and the neighbor admitted to abusing him.
West's older brother and aunt, who said she was more like a sister to him, attended the hearing and spoke emotionally about West's and their own abusive childhood.
"He hasn't ever got a break in his life," James West said. "He should get a break in his death."
Two psychologists talked about the toll that a rocky home life and the years of sexual abuse took on West, saying that's why he turned to alcohol and drugs, worsening a bad psychological state.
They said one of the symptoms of West's PTSD is a classic "startle response" and explains why he killed Bortle. West said he "freaked out" during the robbery when Bortle appeared in a hallway and began yelling at him.
Deputy Pima County Attorney Rick Unklesbay said he didn't buy that.
"What I do take issue with is the assumption that Mr. West acted in some sort of startled mode or rage reaction," adding that Bortle did not have any wounds to his arms or hands indicating that he put up a fight during the beating. "What this tells me is that Mr. Bortle was not the one who snuck up on Mr. West. Mr. Bortle didn't see it coming."
He added that Bortle's wounds were so severe, "the bones in his face were essentially a floating mask."
West, who worked as a drywaller, grew up in Kankakee, Ill., and had only been living in Arizona a short time before the crime. He has a daughter.
The Arizona Supreme Court last month denied a request by West to delay his execution after he argued that he had ineffective trial lawyers and that had he been diagnosed with PTSD at the time, he likely would have gotten a lesser sentence. Defense attorneys have several other challenges to West's execution pending in state and federal court.
If he's executed Tuesday, West will become the 91st inmate to be put to death in Arizona. The most recent execution was that of Richard Lynn Bible on June 30 for the molestation and murder of a 9-year-old girl in Flagstaff.
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