Death of a killer

Priscilla Ford’s natural death earlier this week closes out a court case that troubled many people.

Ford drove her car on a downtown Reno sidewalk on Thanksgiving 1980, killing six people and injuring 20. During her trial for murder, her mental state—including family problems and an obsessive identification with Seventh-day Adventist figure Ellen White (to whom Ford bore a striking resemblance)—drew concern.

“Even though the nature of Ford’s crime would tend to demand drastic response, the nature of the defendant cannot go unnoticed,” James Boles of the Reno Police Department later wrote. “Priscilla Ford cannot be justly punished in the same manner that we reserve only for our most egregious offenders when the single question of sanity and intent cannot be clearly answered, not if we are to continue to recognize the ancient respect for the feeble of mind.”

The Nevada Supreme Court upheld Ford’s murder conviction and death sentence but also signaled its discomfort:

“[W]e do not perceive this case to be among the brightest stars in the judicial firmament. The senseless nature of Mrs. Ford’s conduct, coupled with her troubled and poignant history as wife and mother, lead us to conclude that the better course would have been a negotiated settlement assuring society of the defendant’s permanent sequestration. Such a resolution would have been just considering the ambivalent nuances of her mental condition and the unrelenting obsession of a mother deprived of her child that haunted her life for many years…”

In July 2003, Richard Siegel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada said, “Priscilla Ford was an extremely psychotic woman. … There has never been a willingness to accept the exemption from the death penalty for the seriously mentally ill the way it has finally happened for the mentally retarded. I believe that the Priscilla Ford case was one of the most serious miscarriages of justice in Nevada [RN&R, July 17, 2003].”

One person who never shared such doubts was her prosecutor, Cal Dunlap, who did not think her insane.

“Priscilla was crazy as a fox, rather than just plain crazy,” Dunlap said [RN&R, Oct. 16, 1996].

Dunlap said he once read some legal briefs Ford wrote in a federal lawsuit. He called them “very professional—as good as many of our lawyers can write.”

Even if Ford was insane, Dunlap once wrote, “A person who is murdered is just as dead when killed by an ‘insane’ person as is a person killed by someone with no mental disorder. The family and friends of a victim suffer no less because death is caused by a person who is mentally ill or ‘insane.’… Indeed, often the death is more difficult to accept because the victim has done absolutely nothing to provoke the wrath of the killer.”