Saturday, Jan. 31, 1998 | 1:12 a.m.
CARSON CITY -- While the countdown continues toward the Feb. 3 execution of Texas murderess Karla Faye Tucker, Nevada's only female on death row sits quietly in a prison in North Las Vegas awaiting her fate.
Priscilla Ford, who turns 69 years old on Feb. 10, was sentenced to death for speeding in her Lincoln Continental down the sidewalk on "Casino Row" in Reno, killing six people and injuring more than 20 on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 27, 1980.
Some insiders believe she may die a natural death in prison before the court appeal process is concluded.
If Ford is executed, she will be the first woman in the state to be executed in more than a century, and the first black woman to be executed in Nevada's history.
State Archivist Guy Rocha says the first and only female executed in Nevada was Elizabeth Potts. She was hanged with her husband, Josiah Potts in Elko, using double gallows on June 20, 1890, for the shooting and mutilation of Miles Faucett in Carlin.
Tucker would be the first woman in Texas to be put to death since the Civil War.
She was convicted in 1984 of using a pickax to murder her ex-lover and his companion while the victims were asleep in a Houston apartment. A drug addict and prostitute at the time, she reportedly was unrepentant and even proud of her actions. A co-defendant in the slayings, Daniel Garrett, died in prison of liver disease in 1993.
Her case generated national publicity largely because supporters, including television evangelist Pat Robertson, say she is a born-again Christian who is not the same person she was when she was convicted.
She also would be only the second woman executed in the country since the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976 allowed the death penalty to resume. The only woman to be put to death since then was Velma Barfield in North Carolina 13 years ago.
Unlike Tucker, Ford hasn't gained much public sympathy. She slips in and out of mental competency, says her lawyer, Michael Pescetta, of the federal Public Defenders Office.
"Her mental condition has deteriorated over the year," Pescetta said.
"It comes and it goes," said the attorney who is pursuing her appeal, which now rests in the U.S. District Court in Las Vegas. In prior years, she suffered some physical ailments but Pescetta said, "None seem to be flaring up."
Ford lives in a single cell at the Southern Nevada Women's Correctional Facility in North Las Vegas, a private prison run by the Corrections Corporation of America. She's isolated from the general population. Pescetta refused a SUN request to photograph Ford.
Prison spokesman Rich Douglas says she's allowed one hour a day of exercise in a small yard adjoining her cell. Her meals are brought to her. She has access to the library and has a television in her room. She enjoys visiting privileges, the same as other inmates.
"She's a model prisoner," Douglas said.
Aside from Ford's gender, her case is unusual in Nevada because most murder case appeals are handled by the state attorney general's office. However, Washoe County has agreed to prosecute the entire case.
Gregory Shannon, a deputy district attorney in Washoe County who has represented the state in the appeal process, says this case has been before the Nevada Supreme Court four times and once before the U.S. Supreme Court.
"There are many more steps before anything happens to Priscilla Ford," even though it has been more than 17 years since the offense was committed, he said.
Shirley Haun of Emmett, Idaho, will never forget that day in 1980. She and her husband, Bob, were walking down Virginia Street when they were hit by Ford's car from behind. They both suffered extensive leg injuries and Bob Haun had to have his spleen removed.
"Every step we take, we think of her," Haun said in a telephone interview. "We're in pain every day." She said her leg was almost torn off and her back was fractured when she was hit.
"We would like to be right there," when the execution is carried out, Shirley Haun said.
But that day may never come because at question in Ford's case is her sanity.
Shannon believes Ford was mentally competent at the time of the offense. After her arrest, she told police, "I deliberately planned to get as many as possible." Another statement attributed to her was, "The more dead the better. Give the mortuaries the business. That's the American way."
She also said, "I will get you honkies," and she questioned if she had mowed down 50 pedestrians, adding, "I hope 75."
Shannon says, "I will contest any opinion that says she's not competent."
Pescetta, however, maintains, "She had no idea of what she did."
After her arrest, Ford was found mentally incompetent to stand trial and was sent to Lakes Crossing mental hospital for state inmates in Sparks. Later she was certified by three psychiatrists as competent to stand trial.
Doctors prescribed anti-psychotic drugs, saying she needed to take them to keep her competent during the trial. She appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled she was not required to take the drugs.
During the four-month trial, three defense psychiatrists and a psychologist testified that Ford did not know right from wrong when she ran her car down the sidewalk. But a prosecution psychiatrist said she was able at the time of the offense to determine right from wrong.
Ford told the jury she was Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. She took the stand against the advice of her lawyer and maintained she was sane. She called the tragedy an accident and testified she did not remember the incident.
Her lawyer, Lew Carnahan, who later became a district judge, portrayed her as mentally unbalanced. He said Ford wanted revenge against the city of Reno because in 1973 county welfare officials took her 11-year-old daughter into custody as a ward of the state. Ford was committed three times after that to the state Mental Health Institute and then left Reno without contacting her daughter.
Ford was convicted of six counts of first-degree murder and 23 counts of attempted murder, and was sentenced to die.
At the time, she said, "I would like to be left alone and die in peace." She tried to forego her automatic appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court and have the death sentence carried out.
The Supreme Court sent the case back to District Court in Reno to determine her sanity. District Judge Charles McGee, who got the case after the retirement of trial judge John Barrett, at first ruled Ford was mentally incompetent.
McGee reversed himself and ruled that Ford was mentally competent following her release from the Lakes Crossing mental hospital. A hospital administrator's testimony at a hearing on her competency convinced McGee to change his mind.
The case then returned to the Supreme Court. In April 1986, in a unanimous opinion written by former Justice Thomas Steffen, the court upheld the verdict and the death penalty. The court said Ford "displayed a mind of above-average intelligence," despite some of her strange behavior.
But her mind was clearly troubled. Steffen wrote the trial "was not among the brightest stars in the judicial firmament." And he suggested a "better course" would have been a negotiated plea in which Ford would spend the rest of her life in prison.
He noted that at the time the cost to the taxpayers was already $274,494 and that didn't include the time of the attorneys for both sides, the judges and other court costs. Shannon said he didn't know how much the case has cost taxpayers to date. But he said most of the cost would be related to the time he spends on the case.
Pescetta suggests that Ford can receive justice only in the federal system.
"Any judge in Washoe County that said she can't be executed ... that judge would be gone quickly," he said, referring to the political pressures.
Pescetta doesn't see any movement in the appeal before spring. And once U.S. District Judge Lloyd George rules, one side or the other will appeal to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is notoriously slow in deciding death penalty cases.
And the decision by the Ninth Circuit is sure to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Part of the problem faced by the appellate court is a heavy caseload coupled with numerous judicial vacancies. The vacancies haven't been filled largely because Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been wrangling over the scheduling of hearings for President Clinton's nominees.
Shannon said part of the reason for the numerous appeals in Ford's case is because of the questions regarding her mental competency.
Murder cases typically are automatically appealed. After an appellate ruling, the next step is usually post-conviction relief. Unlike the initial appeal, which centers on issues connected with the trial, post-conviction relief involves other topics such as allegations that the defense attorney was incompetent. Additional questions about the defendant's mental capacity can lead to extra layers of appeals, as has been the case with Ford.
"Politically, there is tremendous support to shorten the appeals process, but which step would you eliminate?" Shannon said.
If Ford loses all of her appeals, there's still the question of her sanity. The law prohibits persons from being executed who are not mentally competent. That could entail a new round of court appeals.
The last execution in Nevada was of Richard Moran, in March 1996. There have been only five since 1977, despite an increasing number of people on death row.
When Ford was convicted, there were 11 men on death row. Now there are 84. And seven of the men were sentenced to death prior to Ford's conviction in 1982.
SUN REPORTER Steve Kanigher contributed to this story.