MEMPHIS, Tenn. - A former corrections officer pleaded guilty Thursday to fatally shooting two workers at a rural Tennessee post office in a deal that allows him to avoid the death penalty and spend the rest of his life in prison.
Chastain Montgomery, 50, changed his plea to guilty in a deal with prosecutors during a hearing before U.S. Senior District Judge Jon P. McCalla in Memphis. The deal was authorized by Attorney General Eric Holder, said Edward Stanton, U.S. attorney for West Tennessee.
Montgomery will be sentenced to life in prison Aug. 12. There is no parole in the federal system.
Montgomery struggled to answer several questions from McCalla during the hearing, consulting with his lawyers for guidance. But when he was asked by the judge if he felt OK, Montgomery smiled and replied, "I feel pretty good."
Montgomery was charged with shooting Paula Robinson and Judy Spray during an October 2010 robbery of the post office in Henning, about 45 miles northeast of Memphis. Their relatives stared sternly at Montgomery during the hearing.
Prosecutors said Montgomery and his 18-year-old son tried to rob the post office, but they became angry and began shooting after they realized it had just $63 to steal.
"I feel that the outcome that we have is true justice in this case," defense attorney Michael Scholl said. "It spares families on all sides from having to suffer through a 2-month-long trial."
Federal prosecutors said last year they would be seeking the death penalty against Montgomery because he has shown no remorse and is capable of "future dangerousness."
Chastain Montgomery Jr. was killed in a shootout with police in Mason in February 2011 after the teen was caught driving a stolen truck. The elder Montgomery was arrested when he went to the crime scene in Mason in what authorities said was the getaway car in the post office shootings and tried to access the stolen truck.
In a videotaped interrogation, Montgomery said he became angry after realizing the post office had little cash and he shot Robinson, who was black. His son then shot Spray, who was white, Montgomery said.
"I lost it, man," Chastain Montgomery Sr. told postal inspectors on Feb. 15, 2011. "I started shooting. I shot the black lady."
Montgomery's defense challenged the confession, arguing that it was coerced by investigators and that his requests for a lawyer were ignored. McCalla ruled that the confession could be used at trial, which had been scheduled for June 9.
McCalla also ruled that Montgomery is not mentally disabled and would be eligible to face the death penalty. Defense attorneys had argued that Montgomery is intellectually disabled and unfit to face the death penalty under the guidelines set forth by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Psychologists testified in a December hearing that three IQ tests Montgomery took as a child and adult showed he has a mild intellectual disability, with scores of less than 70.
Prosecutors argued that Montgomery's IQ tests don't reflect that Montgomery was able to function in society, attend college and hold jobs, including a long tenure at a West Tennessee prison.
In his ruling, McCalla said Montgomery does not suffer from the limitations required for a finding of intellectual disability. Those limitations include the diminished ability to understand and process information, communicate, learn from experience and control impulses.
In the December hearing, which lasted several days, Montgomery had to be restrained twice due to outbursts in court. In one of the outbursts, he threatened to kill a witness who was testifying.
Prosecutors also have accused him of making a knife-like weapon known as a "shank" and planning to escape jail by attacking a U.S. marshal with it.
Montgomery also pleaded guilty to robbing two Middle Tennessee banks with his son after the post office shootings. Deputies found ammunition, a gun and cash stained with red dye in the younger Montgomery's backpack after the Mason shootout. Banks use exploding dye packs to mark stolen bills.
A 9mm gun used by the son in his shootout with police matched the one used in the post office shootings, authorities said. A 40-caliber weapon recovered from the father's Chevrolet Impala matched the one used to shoot Robinson.
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