Looking for, and finding, signs of life in a double murderer

By Nick R. Martin | July 30th, 2009 | 3:10 am | 2 Comments »

Samuel Dieteman

In the end, it was the good he did that saved his life.

For sure, Samuel Dieteman has done a lot of terrible things in his lifetime, some of the worst a man can do. He set fire to buildings, helped shoot and wound more than a dozen people and murdered two hapless young women in the summer of 2006.

But when it came time Wednesday to decide how the 33-year-old Phoenix man should be punished for his role in the Serial Shooter killing spree, a group of 12 people, his jury, chose to look beyond his horrific crimes to his efforts at helping police and apologizing to his victims after his arrest.

“It changed my mind,” said Ulysses Fuentes, who ultimately sided with his fellow jurors to spare Dieteman’s life. “He actually confessed and took charge for the crimes that he did.”

And indeed he had. Dieteman began confessing in the first few hours after he and co-conspirator Dale Hausner were arrested in the Serial Shooter case in August 2006. During the next three years, he helped authorities build a case against Hausner, who it turned out had been killing people for at least nine months before the two men had met.

Earlier this year, Dieteman’s cooperation helped convince a jury to convict Hausner of six murders and numerous other crimes. Hausner was sentenced to death March 27 and is currently serving time on death row in Florence.

In recent months, Dieteman began answering letters in his cell from some of the surviving victims who wanted to understand his mindset. Both in writing and from the witness stand, he apologized for his role in the shootings, taking full responsibility for everything.

By the time his sentencing trial opened in Maricopa County Superior Court this month, Dieteman had done everything an admitted murderer could do to make a case for leniency with a jury. He had cooperated with authorities, apologized to his victims and promised to better himself in prison.

It was exactly what his defense team hoped jurors would pick up on during the trial, despite hearing gruesome tales of death and mayhem.

On Wednesday, they learned their strategy had worked. Shortly after 4 p.m., following about seven hours of deliberations, the jury walked into the courtroom and announced that Dieteman would receive life in prison with no chance of parole for his crimes, the lesser of two possible sentences. They spared him the death penalty for the murders of Claudia Gutierrez-Cruz and Robin Blasnek

Signs of life

Following the verdict, several jurors spoke to the media outside the courthouse to explain their decision. Many of them said they went into the trial leaning toward the death penalty but were swayed by Dieteman’s cooperation with authorities.

Sergio Pedroza, one of the jurors, called it “the turning point” of the trial. He said sitting on the jury knowing he would have to make a decision was difficult to do. “I beat myself up so many days at home,” he said.

But Dieteman’s attitude during the trial was enough to sway him. “I definitely believe that he was remorseful,” Pedroza said.

Juror Eric Pyles echoed the sentiment. He said he was swayed partly by the fact that Dieteman had a rough childhood, having grown up exposed to alcohol and drugs at an early age. It didn’t excuse the crimes, Pyles said, but it helped show him in a human light.

“Going into it, I never thought I’d feel sorry for him,” Pyles said. “By the end, I think I did.”

Emphasizing how tough the decision was that jurors faced, Pyles said they began deliberations on Tuesday split down the center, with six believing Dieteman deserved to die and six believing he should live. By the next afternoon, however, the group agreed unanimously on life.

The decision was made a little easier, Pyles said, by the utter contrast between Dieteman and his former friend, Hausner. Pyles called Hausner “crazy Dale.” The serial killer never admitted his involvement in the crimes and told his own jury earlier this year that they made a mistake by convicting him.

“That they would both go to death row, we didn’t think that would be fair,” Pyles said.

No easy outcome

Attorney Vince Imbordino, who led the prosecution for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, said seeking the death penalty against Dieteman, who had been instrumental in convicting Hausner, was “difficult” but “not impossible.”

“I guess the way that we looked at it was that he deserved the death penalty,” Imbordino said, adding: “Our purpose was always to have the jury make the decision rather than bargaining the decision.”

Prosecutor Laura Reckart, who also worked both cases, said that even though the state didn’t get the verdict it wanted, Dieteman’s punishment was still one of the harshest possible. “He won’t be out on the street again.”

As much as anything else, this case seemed to answer whether a man could earn redemption for unspeakable crimes. The answer, according to the jury, appeared to be that he could.

Dieteman’s lead defense attorney, Maria Schaffer, began crying as the jury’s verdict was read, filled with relief at the outcome. She said very little afterward, but it was clear Schaffer cared about her client as he worked to better himself.

“Justice was served,” Schaffer said. “Sam has always been prepared to accept whatever sentence was presented by the jury.”

The lead investigator in Dieteman’s case, Phoenix police detective Clark Schwartzkopf, talked about the tough situation authorities faced when asking for the death penalty for one of their star witnesses. Schwartzkopf said he was “alright” with the jury’s decision, but he walked a tightrope when going any further.

“He stood tall when the state needed him to stand tall,” said Schwartzkopf, who got to know Dieteman as well as anyone during the past three years. But, Schwartzkopf said, “It’s inexcusable what he did.”

He was right. There were no excuses for what Dieteman did, and the gunman did not make any during his trial.

For the jury, that was as important as anything. After the verdict, they were allowed to speak to Dieteman behind closed doors. They talked for about a minute, several jurors said, not enough time to have an in-depth conversation but enough to say a few key things.

Mostly, the jurors encouraged Dieteman to try to make a positive difference in the world, even from a maximum security prison.

But Fuentes, one of the jurors, had something else to say to him. “I just thanked him for cooperating and actually confessing,” Fuentes said. “May God be with him.”

  • I take back what I said yesterday. This is actually a good thing. He did everything possible to make it right, even though that was impossible. Hope he’s able to contribute in some way from the inside.

  • I take back what I said yesterday. This is actually a good thing. He did everything possible to make it right, even though that was impossible. Hope he's able to contribute in some way from the inside.