In 2008, within a supposedly high-security prison in the giant federal correctional complex in Florence, Colorado, Gary Watland, a “boarder” from Maine, murdered another inmate, white supremacist Mark Baker.
After five and a half years — and after, probably, millions in taxpayer-paid legal costs, including for his defense team — Watland, the only Maine prisoner facing a possible death penalty, saw federal prosecutors in Denver on February 5 accept his offer to spend life behind bars, without possibility of parole.
However, Watland, 51, already had accumulated enough time to spend life in prison. He had been placed in the federal system after being sentenced to 35 years for a 2006 escape attempt at the Maine State Prison, in Warren, where he was serving 25 years for killing a drinking buddy in Anson in 2004.
At Warren, Watland had plotted with his wife to have her smuggle a gun behind her belt buckle into the prison visitors’ room, where he allegedly planned to kill guards and anyone else in his way during the breakout. After a prisoner tipped off authorities, Susan Watland was apprehended with the loaded gun in the parking lot (See “Stabbed in the Back” and “Gifted Felons,” by Lance Tapley, September 14, 2007).
In Colorado, Watland snuck up on Baker while he was playing poker and stabbed him in the neck with a homemade knife. The plea agreement states: “One blow was to the carotid artery and a second blow severed the brain stem. Mr. Baker fell to the floor dead.” Watland maintained he was in a “kill or be killed” situation. Baker’s prison gang, the Nazi Low Riders, was allegedly harassing gays. Defending his life, Watland came out of the closet.
The feds had wanted to use the arguments that Watland was still dangerous and had a low chance of rehabilitation to obtain a death sentence from a jury, but a judge ruled them out. Shortly after the ruling, prosecutors accepted the plea bargain.
Watland’s case recently stimulated the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition to urge the state Department of Corrections to ban sending Maine prisoners to jurisdictions with the death penalty. Maine doesn’t have capital punishment; the federal government does.
“He’s a classic example of why the death penalty shouldn’t be used,” commented a prisoner who knew him at Warren. “I believe that Gary Watland is mentally ill.” In 2007 his mother told the Phoenix he suffered from bipolar disorder. He denies any mental illness.
Originally from California, Watland re-established his relationship with his parents and teenage daughter during his years awaiting trial in the solitary-confinement ADX prison, which also is in the federal complex in Florence.
“He’s grown as a person over the time I’ve known him,” defense attorney Patrick Burke told the Phoenix. “I think he’ll continue to make a contribution to his family and friends.”
Any future contribution Watland makes will likely be from the austere isolation of the most dreaded supermax in America. Although the US Bureau of Prisons will decide where Watland will be kept, expectations are he will continue to be held at ADX. If he were allowed into a prison’s general population, he would risk being killed in gang revenge.