ATLANTA — While serving almost three decades in prison for a string of armed robberies, Brian Richardson carved out a particularly ruthless reputation for himself.
He threw bleach into the eyes of a guard. He wounded an inmate by stabbing him 30 times with a makeshift plastic weapon. He threatened officers and prisoners and, prosecutors say, talked another inmate into committing suicide. He also killed a 60-year-old cell mate after learning the other inmate was a child molester.
Now a jury considering whether he should face the death sentence for the cell mate’s slaying must decide whether he’s a “cold-blooded killer,” as prosecutors contend, or a mentally ill man who was trying to follow a misguided prison code, as his defense attorneys argue.
Prosecutors and federal defense lawyers have devoted considerable resources to the death penalty case, a rarity in the federal court system. Richardson would be the first person sentenced to death this year in federal court if a unanimous jury reaches that verdict. The jury’s other option is to sentence him to life in prison without release.
Richardson was convicted last month of the July 2007 killing of Steven Obara, who was put into the same temporary cell at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta as Richardson as they awaited transfers to other facilities. Richardson was in the middle of a 65-year sentence for armed robberies, and Obara was serving 10 years for possessing child pornography and child molestation.
Prosecutors say Richardson began plotting murder after learning of Obara’s criminal record. He started by lulling Obara into believing they were friends, they said, and then used a fire extinguisher pin flattened into a weapon to repeatedly stab him before strangling him with a sock.
“It wasn’t enough to kill him and make it clean and quick. He wanted Mr. Obara to suffer,” said Bill McKinnon, an assistant U.S. attorney, at the closing of the six-week trial. “Mr. Obara didn’t have a chance.”
Richardson’s attorney, Brian Mendelsohn, conceded his client had a violent past rooted in a childhood marred by abuse from a sadistic mother. He said Richardson has long suffered from mental illness, but his behavior is finally under control thanks to proper medication.
“Brian Richardson is not a stone cold predatory killer,” he said. “Brian Richardson is a mentally ill man who was sorely damaged by the abuse he suffered as a child, the turning points in his life and a history that none of us would want for our children.”
It took the jury about two days to convict Richardson of first-degree murder in Obara’s killing, and jurors have spent the last month hearing evidence and listening to testimony from mental health experts, Richardson’s crime victims and fellow inmates. All the while, Richardson, whose face and bald head are covered with an intricate web of tattoos, has quietly watched.
At the closing arguments, McKinnon described Richardson’s long and violent history.
McKinnon said Richardson splashed bleach on an Alabama prison guard’s face and years later attacked at least two inmates before he was moved to Atlanta.
The violent behavior continued even after Obara’s killing, prosecutors said. He is accused of talking a troubled inmate across the hallway from his cell into hanging himself, circulating the list of potential witnesses for his trial around the prison grounds and sending a note to an inmate on the list warning: “IF YOU TESTIFY I WILL HAVE YOU KILLED!!!!!”
“You can’t just ignore the life that the defendants lived up to this point. He’s not a victim. He’s responsible for who he is and what he’s done,” said McKinnon, urging the 12 jurors to return a death sentence. “Life in prison means nothing.”
But Mendelsohn said his client was following a prison code that requires inmates to rough up child molesters, and the attack quickly spun out of control. Richardson still has an opportunity for redemption, he said, if a jury shows him mercy.
“There is a huge chance of rehabilitation for Brian. He’s finally on medicine that makes him calm, and he has reconnected with his family,” said Mendelsohn, who added: “Mental illness is at the root of everything that goes on here. The medication made all the difference.”