The Idaho Supreme Court Thursday upheld the life prison sentence of a Lewiston man who cut off and mutilated the head of a local shoe salesman in June 2002.

John M. Cope, who was 42 at the time, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for decapitating Brian K. Elliot, 43, with a three-inch folding Buck knife.

He told police he killed Elliot because he was "the mark of the beast." Cope was sentenced in Lewiston's 2nd District Court in April 2003.

After the state Court of Appeals upheld the sentence in April 2005, Cope filed for a review by the Idaho Supreme Court, claiming the fixed life sentence is excessive and the use of a competency evaluation and psychologist's testimony at sentencing violated his constitutional rights.

The Supreme Court concluded that by pleading guilty, Cope "knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently waived his right to appeal," according to the opinion written by Chief Justice Gerald F. Schroeder.

Cope signed a plea agreement on Jan. 31, 2003, in open court, and "unless the plea is rejected or withdrawn, the defendant hereby gives up any and all motions, defenses, objections, appeals or requests ...," Schroeder wrote.

The court further concluded the psychologist's testimony at Cope's sentencing hearing was admissible because Cope waived his right to appeal any matters preceding the District Court judge's entry of judgment and imposition of sentence.

As for Cope's excessive-sentence claim, the court concluded that sentencing is a matter for the trial court's discretion, so long as it falls within the statutory limits -- 10 years to life imprisonment for second-degree murder in Idaho.

The Supreme Court can only set aside a sentence if the appellate can show a judge clearly abused discretion by acting outside the scope of a reasonable person.

With Cope's history of noncompliance to remain medicated and "his own expert testifying that (he), even if medicated, still poses a threat to others, Cope failed to show how anything less than a fixed life sentence could meet the sentencing objective to protect society," Schroeder wrote.

When reviewing a case from the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court does not just review the correctness of the appeals court decision, it acts as though it is hearing the matter on direct appeal from the trial court, according to the opinion.

"This was a gruesome and horrifying crime that warrants the sentence imposed by the District Court," Schroeder wrote. "It would be difficult to rationalize any other sentence."


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