LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — In an unusual case, a federal inmate faces a possible death sentence if convicted of killing a fellow prisoner at a high-security prison tucked away in the Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky.
The U.S. Justice Department is weighing whether to seek execution for 31-year-old John Travis Millner if a jury convicts him attacking 35-year-old Vincent Earl Smith Jr. while both were housed at United State Penitentiary Big Sandy in January 2009.
Millner is scheduled for arraignment Sept. 26 in federal court in Ashland on two murder charges: murder by a federal inmate serving life in prison, and first-degree murder. He is serving a life sentence without parole for using a high-powered rifle to shoot a person on New Year’s Eve in 2002 in Washington, D.C.
Prosecutors say Millner attacked Smith at the prison in Inez, Ky., with a homemade ice pick before strangling him to death. Beyond that, details of what sparked the conflict between the two men, both from Washington, are sketchy in court records. The prison is about 140 miles east of Lexington and 321 miles west of Washington.
Millner’s attorney, Patrick Nash of Lexington, said his client will plead not guilty. Nash said that because of the charges and possible death sentence, a negotiated plea is unlikely.
“I do believe this thing is going to be a case that goes to a jury trial,” Nash said in an interview. “The death sentence, it ups the ante a lot.”
Kyle Edelen, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Lexington, said Justice Department policy barred him from discussing the circumstances of the crime or why four years passed between Smith’s death and Millner’s indictment last week.
The case is unusual because federal prosecutors don’t often seek death sentences in inmate-on-inmate crimes and because federal death sentences are infrequently sought in Kentucky.
Currently, about 10 percent of the 59 inmates on federal death row were condemned for killing another inmate.
Millner, who is now housed in a high-security facility in Lewisburg, Pa., has a long record of violent crimes in Virginia and Washington.
Big Sandy has gone through streaks of violence since opening in 2003, but a capital crime is a rarity.
“It’s certainly not one of the prisons known to have a huge amount of violence,” said Deborah Golden, an attorney who frequently handles inmate issues with the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
Millner landed in federal prison initially for killing 68-year-old church trustee Walter Coates in what prosecutors described as a random shooting.
While in prison, Millner and another inmate were convicted of assault with intent to murder after an attack on a prisoner at a penitentiary in Jonesville, Va.
Big Sandy is known for housing high-profile inmates. And because the federal Bureau of Prisons automatically takes custody of people convicted in Washington, at any time, up to a third of the facility’s 1,445 inmates were convicted in the city. Additionally, many inmates are sent there because of violent crimes or with long sentences, Golden said.
“It certainly doesn’t surprise me that there was an incident involving two men from D.C.,” Golden said.
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