Lawyers for accused postal-worker killer James Wayne Ham say he will agree to “live in a box for the rest of his life” to avoid a death penalty trial, but Justice Department officials say they will continue to pursue a capital case against the San Jacinto County man.
The 38-year-old has been awaiting trial for nearly two years to face allegations that he fatally shot rural mail carrier Eddie “Marie” Youngblood as she made deliveries in Coldspring in May 2013. The community is about 60 miles north of Houston.
Ham, who appeared in court on Monday during a pretrial conference wearing forest-green prison garb, is charged with one count of first-degree murder of a federal employee and discharging a firearm in relation to a violent crime resulting in death.
In a 6½-page document explaining why the government is seeking a capital conviction, prosecutors alleged that Ham’s ongoing pattern of violent acts – years of shooting at people and animals as well as setting fires – converged in the crime against the postal worker.
Ham had an ongoing dispute with Youngblood, who he believed was commiserating with his estranged rural mail carrier wife to tamper with his mail and reroute deliveries to her.
The government’s notice of intent to seek the death penalty said Ham had been charged with raping a female relative and sexually assaulting a woman he met in a bar. He’s threatened to kill at least one wife, shot and killed his estranged wife’s goats and another family’s pair of dogs, fired weapons at other people and has stolen guns, the document said.
Seen as future danger
“Ham also has a propensity to set things on fire when he feels he has been wronged,” the filing said, noting that he has set puppies on fire, started a blaze in a national forest and lit up a mobile home.
In the Youngblood case, Ham is accused of firing at least two gunshots at Youngblood, then burning her Jeep Cherokee and his clothes.
The government also mentioned future dangerousness to others – including two of Youngblood’s sons who are both letter carriers – as more reasons for seeking a capital conviction.
Federal prosecutors announced last October that they intended to upgrade the murder case. Since then, Ham’s lawyers have tried to avoid the effort and expense of a death penalty trial.
“We have somebody who is willing to take a life without parole,” said Katherine Scardino, who was appointed to represent Ham with Robert Morrow.
After Monday’s hearing, Scardino said she is working on a “deauthorization” in which prosecutors could agree to take the death penalty off the table.
“I think it’s just because he killed a postal worker that the government is seeking death,” she said. “He’s willing to plead to life and they want to kill him, and I find that repulsive.”
U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes approved the defense counsel’s budget nearly two months ago, but 5th Circuit Court of Appeals administration has yet to accept the planned expenses.
“What we are looking at is under $1 million. Maybe,” Scardino said. “But we’re just getting started.”
After Scardino and Morrow said they couldn’t hire experts to review evidence or proceed much more with the case until the budget is approved, Hughes canceled his setting for an October 2015 trial. Lawyers on both sides agreed to a tentative trial time frame of February 2016.
Assistant U.S. attorneys Joseph Magliolo and Suzanne Elmilady, based in the Southern District of Texas, are prosecuting the case.
Late Monday, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas declined to comment about the death penalty designation.
“I want it done right, but there is something to be said for swift justice, and if the government changed its mind, we wouldn’t have to go through all this,” Hughes said.
Federal prosecutors rarely seek the death penalty nationwide and have pursued the punishment in Southeast Texas only a handful of times.