The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

February 22, 2013

Inmate accused of killing former area residents says medical problems should delay trial date

John McCluskey facing death penalty in murder of Gary, Linda Haas

From The Associated Press

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — A man who escaped from an Arizona prison and is facing federal murder charges in New Mexico is seriously ill and unable to meaningfully help prepare his defense, his attorneys told a judge this week in their successful effort to delay the trial.

John McCluskey is being treated for an undisclosed medical condition that has led to weight loss and left him physically and mentally weak, his attorneys said.

McCluskey had been set to go to trial next month on carjacking and murder charges in the deaths of an Oklahoma couple, Gary and Linda Haas, who have ties to Southwest Missouri, but U.S. District Judge Judith Herrera agreed to a postponement until late July.

The Haases, both 61, had worked for General Motors in Oklahoma City before losing their jobs and were planning on moving back to Southwest City in McDonald County where they were from, according to family members. Linda also had worked as a school teacher in McDonald County.

Court documents allude to McCluskey’s medical condition but don’t identify it, and federal officials and the New Mexico Corrections Department would not comment.

Prosecutors have said they’re concerned that McCluskey could be exaggerating the effects of the disease to avoid trial, but one of the defendant’s doctors said tests could determine the severity of it.

McCluskey has made no secret of his desire to steer clear of a trial and the death penalty. He recently agreed to plea negotiations, but federal prosecutors said they’re intent on moving toward trial.

“There is truly no middle ground in this case,” the prosecution said.

McCluskey’s attorneys asked Herrera on Tuesday to schedule mediation, saying the parties owe it to the court to attempt an early resolution.

McCluskey is one of three people who authorities say escaped from a medium-security prison near Kingman, Ariz., in July 2010 with the help of an accomplice and went on a multi-state crime spree. He was one of three people charged in the deaths of Haases, of Tecumseh, Okla., whose remains were found in a burned-out camping trailer at an eastern New Mexico ranch.

Tracy Province and Cassyln Welch have pleaded guilty in the murder case. Authorities say Welch helped the three men escape from prison.

McCluskey has fought to exclude witness testimony, government and prison gang experts, ballistics testing and fingerprint evidence from his trial. A March hearing is set on defense motions to keep out testimony from the medical investigator and DNA evidence.

Herrera called McCluskey’s arguments to stop prosecutors from seeking the death penalty “fascinating and creative” but ultimately unpersuasive. McCluskey has said he would plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of less than death.

McCluskey also plans to file a petition for a new trial in Mohave County, where he was convicted on state charges of escape, armed robbery, aggravated assault and weapons misconduct, claiming the attorneys who represented him during trial and on appeal were ineffective. He was sentenced to 43 years.

Neither McCluskey’s attorney in the Arizona case nor his attorneys in the federal case in New Mexico returned messages seeking comment on his medical condition.

Court documents indicate McCluskey has been ill since late September or early October. His attorneys say it could take several months to stabilize him with medication that generally works well but could have serious side effects. They noted that he is improving under medical care.