Robert Dale Conklin learned the hard way that a self-defense or justification defense is a risky way to fight an all-or-nothing murder charge, and the lesson cost him his life.
Conklin was a 23-year-old ex-con working as a fast food restaurant manager in 1984 when he was arrested for killing 28-year-old attorney George Crooks.
The two men met at an interstate freeway rest stop known as a gathering spot for men searching for anonymous sex, and over a few weeks established a more monogamous sexual relationship. On the night of March 26, 1984, after Crooks showed up at Conklin’s apartment still suffering from the after effects of wisdom tooth extractions earlier in the day, the attorney’s day went from bad to worse when Conklin told him he wanted to end the relationship.
Crooks, according to Conklin, became “moody and upset,” but remained in the apartment at which time they smoked some pot and went to bed.
After he was arrested for the crime that landed him on Georgia’s death row, Conklin gave police a lengthy confession, which he probably thought would help establish his claim of self-defense or justification for the crime.
According to Conklin, while the two soon-to-be ex-lovers were in bed, Crooks would not let him go to sleep.
“(Crooks) kept messing with me and it turned into a wrestling match. I got tired of it, told him to quit and he wouldn’t.”
The “messing” went on for at least 90 minutes, Conklin said, and escalated in intensity when Crooks said he wanted to perform anal sex, which Conklin refused to do.
“Eventually he had me pinned on the bed sitting on my stomach,” he recounted. “I was wrestling trying to get free. I was mad but he thought it was all a big joke.”
Conklin told police that he was afraid for his safety at that time, and feared that he was going to be sexually assaulted. The fear of sexual assault can, under certain circumstances, allow for a justification defense when the person with the fear is charged with a crime.
Justification is a broad term for various types of affirmative defenses that defendants can offer as an explanation for their actions. The most common type of justification defense is self defense. Under the theory of justification, the use of force upon or toward another person is justifiable when the actor believes that such force is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting himself against the use of unlawful force by such other person on the present occasion.
Generally, a self-defense argument for use of deadly force requires that the defendant’s actions meet the following conditions:
- The defendant believed that the force used was necessary to protect himself or herself against death, serious bodily harm, kidnapping or sexual assault.
- The defendant did not provoke the use of force against himself or herself with the purpose of causing death or serious bodily harm.
- The defendant could not avoid the use of such force or did not know that he or she could avoid its use by retreating.
Additionally, the deadly force must be stopped when the threat no longer exists.
Conklin’s confession recounts a particularly gruesome killing that negates almost any justification.
“Eventually I got an arm free and I did hit him and he hit me back. He was still sitting on me,” Conklin confessed. “We were there struggling and I reached over and grabbed a screwdriver. I swung the screwdriver and it stuck into him. He rolled off the bed and I followed him screwdriver in hand. I held him down and I stuck the screwdriver in his ear, I wiggled it around and I realized what I had done and got scared.
“I tried to stop him from bleeding but I think he was already dead.”
On cross-examination, Conklin stated that he may have stabbed Crooks up to seventeen times with the screwdriver, and that some of these stabbings may have been inflicted in the neck and shoulder area.
By following Crooks when his victim was already retreating, Conklin ruined whatever chance he had of a successful justification defense. His behavior after the crime however is what landed him on death row because at this point the type of homicide — murder or manslaughter — was still up in the air.
Rather than calling the police, he “panicked” and decided to dispose of the body. Conklin dragged Crooks’s body to the bathtub and attempted to lighten it by draining it of blood.
“I went ahead and got a steak knife from downstairs and tried to cut his throat and bleed him into the bathtub,” he confessed. “That did not work too good.
“So I went ahead and tried to tie his feet up several ways so his feet was up and his head was down. Tried to use a neck tie but it broke. Eventually I just propped his feet up and left him like that with the water running.”
Then he went to Crooks’s apartment to destroy any evidence connecting the two men. He replaced the cassette tape in Crooks’s answering machine, and took a card containing Conklin’s name and telephone number. Conklin then took Crooks’s checkbook and drove Crooks’s car to a grocery store, where he purchased cleaning supplies and knives. Conklin abandoned Crooks’s car in a parking lot and returned to his apartment.
Using a book on hunting and butchering animals as a how-to guide, Conklin proceeded to process his victim.
“When I got home, I went ahead and went to work to cut him in half so I could get him out of there. . . . I decided there would be less of him to move if I could put some of him down the garbage disposal. . . . I then cut the rest of him up in small enough pieces to put in the bags.”
During the next 24-hours, Conklin tried to maintain normalcy. Conklin went to a meeting at work from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., and had friends over that evening while Crooks’s body was still in his bathroom.
That night, Conklin placed Crooks’s body in nine different trash bags and disposed of them in the dumpster outside of his apartment.
He got up for work the next day, but took a bus to Florida when he discovered that the police had found Crooks’s body. Conklin returned to Georgia a few days later and was caught by the police.
His actions helped the State of Georgia establish that he acted with malice aforethought, an element of murder in the Peach State. Under Georgia law, “[a] person commits the offense of murder when he unlawfully and with malice aforethought, either express or implied, causes the death of another human being.”
Express malice is defined as the “deliberate intention unlawfully to take the life of another human being which is manifested by external circumstances capable of proof.” Implied malice exists “where no considerable provocation appears and where all the circumstances of the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart.”
The trial and appellate courts all found that Conklin acted with both implied and express malice:
- The multiple knife wounds to the victim’s neck were, in the expert opinion of the medical examiner, inflicted prior to death, implying a premeditated and brutal killing.
- Conklin’s treatment of Crooks’s body after his death supports the finding of an “abandoned and malignant heart” necessary to find implied malice.
Conklin was indicted on April 25, 1984, and lead counsel was appointed on May 4, 1984. Trial began thirty-seven days later, despite the defenses requests for additional time to prepare.
On May 30, 1984, the defense requested additional time to prepare at a pretrial hearing, but the court denied his request. On the Friday before trial, the lawyer informed the court that he was unprepared for trial. The court again denied the request for a continuance, and proceeded to trial the following Monday.
After the trial, when the case went into the sentencing phase, Conklin’s attorney admitted that he simply “gave up.” During an evidentiary hearing on Conklin’s habeas corpus motion the attorney testified, “if I could not present my entire mitigation and all the evidence I wanted to present, there wasn’t any use of me presenting any of it.”
Conklin was executed July 13, 2005.
For his last meal, Conklin requested filet mignon wrapped in bacon, shrimp sauteed in garlic, butter and lemon; a baked potato; corn on the cob; asparagus with hollandaise sauce; French bread; goat cheese; cantaloupe; apple pie; vanilla bean ice cream; and iced tea.