Georgia inmate Steven Spears is executed willingly

A coroner's van pulls into the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in preparation for an execution in April 2016. At right are images of Steven F. Spears, who was scheduled to die on Wednesday. (Prison photo: Ben Gray /; mugshot: state Department of Corrections; interior of death chamber: AJC file)

A coroner's van pulls into the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in preparation for an execution in April 2016. At right are images of Steven F. Spears, who was scheduled to die on Wednesday. (Prison photo: Ben Gray /; mugshot: state Department of Corrections; interior of death chamber: AJC file)

Steven Spears died by lethal injection Wednesday evening, having won the argument that he preferred death to death row as his punishment for murdering ex-girlfriend Sherri Holland in 2001.

“Would you want to live in a 6-by-9 cell?” Spears asked a psychiatrist for the state who interviewed him at length on Tuesday. “That’s not living. … It’s like a cancer eating me up every day.”

Spears, 54, wasn’t pleased with the lawyers who tried to save him when he wasn’t interested in saving himself. “They are forcing their beliefs on others,” he said. “It’s my choice.”

At 7:30 p.m. Spears was declared dead. He was the eighth person Georgia has executed this year, more than any other state in 2016 and more than in any one year in Georgia since 1957, when 16 people were put to death.

He had no last words and he declined a prayer.

Outside the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, where the death chamber is located, nine death-penalty opponents and two death-penalty supporters stood quietly, waiting. The death-penalty opponents formed a circle. But in a departure from protesters’ actions during past executions, they did not sing or pray aloud.

Beyond the automatic appeal that is brought after any death sentence is imposed, Spears never challenged his conviction or punishment for murdering his ex-girlfriend in her Dahlonega home.

Spears spent most of his final days fighting off lawyers who wanted to save him and trying to convince mental health experts that he was competent and fully understood the consequences of going willingly to his execution.

It is unusual for information from a last-minute psychological interview with a death row inmate to become public.

“We’re talking another 10 to 15 years,” Spears told psychiatrist Matthew Norman when asked why he refused to appeal. “I’m not doing that. The process takes so long. It’s what’s wrong with the death penalty. … I’m 54 years old. If the court ruled in my favor, I’d be 60 before I’d get out. And everybody that gets life with parole doesn’t get out. That’s another thing these lawyers might understand if they came and lived with me for a while.”

» The faces of Georgia's Death Row

In a hearing Wednesday morning at the Butts County Courthouse, just miles from death row, an attorney who represents several death row inmates withdrew the "next friend" petition he had brought on behalf of Spears' third ex-wife, Gwen Thompson. Such petitions can be brought by someone who has a "significant relationship" with a person who is not appealing his death sentence.

Attorney Brain Kammer, executive director of the Georgia Resource Center, urged Spears to change his mind.

“There are people in your life who care about you,” Kammer told Spears. “They want you in their life. They love you. Please don’t let it end this way, sir. Please reconsider. It’s on you now. If you change your mind please reach out to us.”

Kammer said lawyers would wait for his call, should he change his mind, at the truck stop across the road from the entrance to the Georgia Diagnostic Prison. They already had papers drawn up and ready to sign.

The call never came.

Meanwhile, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles declined to step in. While Spears did not ask for clemency, his lawyer and others still met with the five-member board on Tuesday to ask for mercy or, at least, time to try to persuade Spears to change his mind.

Spears never denied he murdered Holland, a 34-year-old single mother of a teenage boy.

Spears confessed to killing Holland as soon as a Lumpkin County deputy picked him up as he walked toward town to surrender, having hid in the woods for 10 days.

“If I had to do it again, I’d do it,” Spears told investigators who first interviewed him.

» Georgia's Death Row: Those executed and their victims

Spears told investigators he had warned Holland when they started dating in 1999 that he would kill her if she ever left him.

After the relationship ended three years later, Spears plotted how he would murder her, coming up with four plans — by electrocution, beating her to death, shooting her, or suffocating her. He put his supplies for each plan in place at her house before he crept in on Aug. 24, 2001, and hid in her 14-year-old son’s bedroom closet, waiting for her to fall asleep.

Early on Aug. 25, 2001, he came out.

Spears choked her unconscious and then wrapped her face with duct tape, put a plastic bag over her head and secured the end with more tape. He left her body in her bedroom and put a padlock on the door. Holland was found when her ex-husband brought their son home from a weekend visit.

Holland was killed on the day she was to have gone on her first date since breaking up with Spears, her sister said.

According to court filings from two mental health experts’ interviews with Spears on Tuesday, his reasons for supporting his death sentence were rational.

Norman, the psychiatrist, wrote that Spears wavered on the question of appealing only when he thought “there was a hope for success.”

“In my opinion, Mr. Spears is simply weighing his options and making what he feels is a decision in his own best interest,” Norman wrote in his report. “In fact, his ‘documented variability’ may well be evidence of a rational mind. He does not want to hasten death but does not wish to delay it either.”

Another expert, psychologist Robert Shaffer, reversed what he had previously written in an affidavit attached to Thompson’s “next friend” petition. For that petition, Shaffer determined that Spears was not competent based on documents and interviews with others. But Shaffer changed his opinion and agreed with Norman’s appraisal after meeting Tuesday evening with Spears.

During an hour-and-40-minute interview at the courthouse Tuesday, Norman and Spears talked on a wide range of topics so the psychiatrist could determine how aware the condemned man was of the world and what was going to happen to him if he didn’t appeal.

Spears said Thompson was never his wife, though she was the mother of his fourth daughter. “I haven’t seen that woman since 1989. No contact. Not since she (his daughter) was a year old,” Spears told Norman.

Spears said he had read 2,000 to 3,000 books while in prison by authors including James Patterson, Nora Roberts, Dean Koontz and Stephen King.

“He recalled (correctly) that the first sentence of the first book in the “Dark Tower” series is also the last sentence in the final book in the series,” Norman wrote in his report.

Spears told Norman he started spending more time watching television than reading in the past three weeks. Once prison officials moved him to a different cell in preparation for his execution, he watched mostly nature shows, news programs and the comedy show “Rosanne,” Norman wrote.

Spears was current on the news, Norman wrote.

“(Donald) Trump — he’s an idiot — he’s president-elect now,” Norman wrote that Spears had volunteered.

Spears was aware of the forest fires in Georgia and that Ross Harris had been convicted of killing his son by leaving him in a hot car.

Spears told Norman he doesn’t believe in life after death.

“They put me in a box and bury me,” Norman wrote, quoting Spears. “If you don’t believe in heaven, then you don’t believe in hell. It kind of balances out.”