Cruel and Unusual

Colorado now has five murderers marking time on death row. Several hundred other violent criminals are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, and more than one member of that group has suggested that execution might be a more merciful fate than decades of isolation behind bars.

But out of the state's 17,150 inmates, only one has gone to court to demand his own execution -- or, as he puts it, his "right to euthanasia." That would be Timothy Stoakes, a 33-year-old convict with a history of theft, forgery and other nonviolent crimes.

"I did not ask to be born," Stoakes wrote in an affidavit filed in Fremont County District Court, in support of his unusual petition. "I've never particularly enjoyed life.... There comes a point at which further prolongation of life simply does not make up for the taxpayers' burden of continued incarceration, especially if the quality of life prolonged is diminished by suffering and incapacity."

Currently serving a six-year sentence for vehicular eluding, Stoakes is eligible for parole in the fall of 2003. He insists he's not suicidal, deranged or simply goofing with the system. No, he says, he's serious about having the state administer death by lethal injection at the earliest possible opportunity. Dead serious.

"I just believe that at some point, society and the state have to take responsibility for the creature they've made," says Stoakes, speaking by phone from the Centennial Correctional Facility, outside Cañon City. "If the courts and the DOC [Colorado Department of Corrections] want to say there's no hope for me, then say that, and let's do what we need to do."

The adopted son of a prominent Boulder businessman, Stoakes has spent most of his adult life in prison. His sentences for a series of thefts have been compounded by parole violations and disciplinary problems inside the DOC. His latest conviction, he says, began with conflicts with his parole officer two years ago. He refused to report to the parole office, and when police officers attempted to pull him over for questioning, he "panicked and did an OJ," resulting in a low-speed chase through the streets of Denver.

Stoakes says he isn't offering excuses for his behavior. He had "chances after chances" to turn his life around, and his parents were often supportive of his reform efforts before he became estranged from them. "I think they were really hurt this last time," he sighs. (Stoakes's father did not respond to a request for comment about his son's petition.) In court filings, Stoakes describes himself as a habitual criminal, a "non-rehabilitative personality" and a "sociopath with an anti-social personality disorder."

"For whatever reason, I can't seem to get myself out of the system," he says. "I'm tired of going through the process when it doesn't resolve anything. I honestly don't know if I could function in society. I couldn't do it when I had a family, so I don't know how I can do it now."

Prison has done little to help him in his battle to go straight, Stoakes says. In fact, the bulk of his court pleadings are devoted to blasting the DOC for a lack of educational and rehabilitative programs, arguing that incarceration amounts to a "degenerative" environment and a waste of public resources, so that death is a preferable alternative.

Although his mandatory release date is only five years away, "I know when I get out with these convictions, I could come back at any time," Stoakes says. "I don't know if I could handle that. I certainly don't want to spend the next ten or twenty years in and out of prison, and I don't want to progress to worse things. I've never done anything violent, and I don't want to become that kind of statistic."

DOC spokeswoman Heidi Hayes concedes that inmate programs are "somewhat limited" at Centennial, which is operated as a "close" (between medium- and maximum-security) facility. Still, she says, the prison does offer job opportunities, medical care, counseling and classes for inmates seeking to get a GED. Prisoners are also "allowed to pursue post-secondary education through the mail," Hayes adds, "but [they] would have to pay for it."

Yet Stoakes's concerns about the revolving-door aspect of prison life today are hardly unfounded. One of every five males in the current Colorado prison population has come back on a parole violation. Roughly half of the 5,500 inmates released last year will be back behind bars within three years.

Stoakes acknowledges that the chances of his petition being granted are practically nonexistent. His filings have bounced from judge to judge, and there doesn't seem to be much legal precedent for a prisoner to seek out a harsher sentence than the one the trial court imposed. Besides, the state has had a hard enough time carrying out the death sentence in the few instances in which it has been imposed: The 1997 execution of Gary Davis represents the state's only exercise of the ultimate penalty in the past 35 years.

But if, by some miracle, a kindly state employee offered Stoakes the needle tomorrow, "I absolutely would follow through," he says. "I am serious. If I filed a lawsuit complaining about conditions of confinement, no one would care. But if I say, 'Look, because conditions are the way they are, maybe [execution] is the best thing' -- if that's what it takes to get people to look at the situation, that's what I'm willing to do."

For related stories go to our Crime and Punishment section in Webextra.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast