James Edward Wood

BOISE — James Edward Wood, on Idaho's death row for the 1993 murder, molestation and dismemberment of an 11-year-old Pocatello newspaper delivery girl, died Sunday at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution.

Ada County Coroner Erwin Sonnenberg said the autopsy on Monday showed Wood died of natural causes, although additional tests will be performed.

"It appears he had a lot of medical problems," Sonnenberg said. "We feel it was probably heart and lung."

Prison spokeswoman Teresa Jones said Wood, 56, complained of breathing difficulty Sunday morning. He was taken to the prison medical unit, where personnel started evaluating him. An ambulance was called, but Wood had stopped breathing by the time it arrived. He was pronounced dead at 9:32 a.m.

Jones said a defibrillator was not used.

The Pensacola, Fla., man pleaded guilty to killing Jeralee Underwood. Wood had kidnapped the child the evening before as she collected from customers on her newspaper route. He was arrested about a week later and led authorities to the body that had been thrown into the Snake River in Idaho Falls.

"The wages of sin are death," Wood said after sentence was imposed on Jan. 14, 1994.

Sixth District Judge Lynn Winmill, now a federal judge, at the time called Wood "a cold-blooded, pitiless slayer" in citing his 30-year trail of crime that covered at least six states and involved at least one and possibly three other killings in Louisiana, an attempted murder and as many as seven alleged rapes.

Winmill said Wood would probably kill again if given the chance.

Joyce Underwood, Jeralee's mother, said her family heard the news about Wood's death before it was released to the public.

"I think he got the easy way out, but I think now he's where he will get true justice," Joyce Underwood said. If there is any consolation, "It's a good feeling to know that we don't have to go through any more trials."

Wood initially filed papers to forgo appeals and expedite his execution. But several weeks later, he changed his mind and appealed.

Wood's case was one of more than a dozen Idaho death-row cases affected by an Arizona case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided that capital defendants must be sentenced to die by a jury rather than a judge.

The case was awaiting trial for the re-sentencing phase, Joyce Underwood said.