PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Craig Price was just 15 years old in 1989 when he confessed to the murders of four neighbors, crimes that terrified the state, triggered a new state law allowing for harsher treatment of young criminals and instantly transformed the baby-faced teenager into Rhode Island’s most notorious serial killer.
He was prosecuted as a juvenile and was supposed to be released in 1994, at the age of 21, but remains locked up because of a series of new offenses committed behind bars and a 25-year criminal contempt sentence he received for defying a judge’s orders to undergo psychological testing.
Now Price, who is jailed in Florida and acts as his own lawyer, wants to return to Rhode Island next month to argue his latest appeal. He’s asking the state’s highest court to vacate his contempt sentence, calling it “unduly harsh and unconstitutional.” But Rhode Island’s corrections department is fighting Price’s request to appear in person, saying his transport from Florida for a 12-minute argument would cost taxpayers thousands of dollars and pose a safety threat. The attorney general’s office, which prosecuted Price, also opposes his bid.
“His criminal history includes four particularly brutal murders, extortion and blackmail, criminal contempt, and numerous violent assaults upon correctional officers,” Patricia Coyne-Fague, the corrections department’s chief lawyer, wrote in court papers. “He has a long history of violent assaults of those charged with keeping him in custody.”
Price was transferred out of state at his own request and is serving his sentence in Florida, where he has been disciplined for, among other offenses, assaulting prison guards and fighting with other inmates.
The arguments are scheduled for March 2 before the state Supreme Court. Spokesman Craig Berke said the court will decide whether it will hear from Price himself or whether it will rely instead on his written arguments.
“Now it’s in the court’s hands to decide what to do,” Berke said.
Price was 15 and living with his parents in Warwick’s Buttonwoods section when he was questioned by police in the killings of neighbor Joan Heaton and her two daughters, ages 8 and 10, who were strangled and stabbed to death with kitchen knives. Police found knives used in the killings in his backyard shed, and a sock print matched his feet. Price confessed to the killings and also admitted to the unsolved murder two years earlier of another neighbor, Rebecca Spencer, who was stabbed roughly five dozen times inside her house.
Though Price could have been sentenced to life without parole if he were an adult, state law at the time prevented him from being jailed past his 21st birthday. His case inspired a law change that allows juveniles to be prosecuted as adults and, when merited, receive life sentences.
Four days before his scheduled release in October 1994, he was convicted of extortion for threatening to kill a guard at the youth detention facility where he was being held. His lawyers complained that prosecutors were trumping up charges to keep Price locked up, but he was sentenced anyway to seven years in prison and, also that year, was found in civil contempt and given a one-year sentence for refusing to undergo a psychological exam.
Price continued to avoid psychiatric counseling at the advice of his lawyers, who were afraid the results of any testing could expose him to a harsher sentence. In 1997, he was convicted of criminal contempt for defying the judge’s orders. He was sentenced to 25 years, with 10 to serve and the balance suspended unless Price got into trouble or refused treatment.
“For five years, Craig Price said `Go to Hell,’” J. Patrick Youngs, the prosecutor in the case, said at his sentencing. Price, in his own speech, said he had since consented to the treatment he had initially resisted.
“I know what I’ve done, but I need my chance to redeem myself,” Price said at his sentencing. “I’m striving. … I want to build.”
The Supreme Court has previously upheld the criminal contempt conviction, but Price, in a new petition for post-conviction relief, says the sentence did not fit the crime and that he was wrong to listen to his lawyers.
“The appellant was a fifteen (15) year old juvenile whom possessed absolutely no legal training or knowledge, and the appellant was utterly reliant and dependent upon the attorneys whom represented him,” Price wrote in a nearly 100-page handwritten brief.