[Deathpenalty]death penalty news----N.Y., CONN., TENN., ALA.
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Sun Nov 21 22:05:34 CST 2004
NEW YORK----possible federal death sentence
Push death penalty in cop slay
Federal indictments will be announced tomorrow in the slayings of 2 Staten
Island undercover detectives, a move that will make the suspected shooter
eligible for the death penalty, sources close to the case told the Daily
The indictments will be filed against six men charged in the March 2003
killings, but only alleged triggerman Ronell Wilson, 22, could face
execution, sources said. Capital punishment was taken out of state
prosecutors' arsenal when the state Court of Appeals declared it
unconstitutional in June.
The others will be charged under a racketeering indictment with gang
affiliation, sources said.
"With the RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations] Act, we
can go after these guys just like they were wiseguys. It's organized
crime," said a high-ranking police official. "But Wilson is the only 1
facing the death penalty."
A spokesman for Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, who has
been running the prosecution, could not be reached for comment.
The 2 detectives, Rodney Andrews and James Nemorin, were killed buying
guns during a sting operation. Their families are considering filing a
lawsuit against the NYPD, charging the operation was botched.
(source: New York Daily News)
Where Execution Feels Like Relic, Death Looms
At 2:01 a.m. on Jan. 26, corrections workers in northern Connecticut are
to begin administering a fatal flow of chemicals into the bloodstream of
Michael Bruce Ross.
The execution by lethal injection is the culmination of a 2-decade case
that began in 1984 when Mr. Ross confessed to strangling 6 teenage girls
and 2 young women, 4 while he was a life insurance salesman in eastern
Connecticut, one while he was a student at Cornell University.
Beyond resurrecting the vicious details of the killings, the pending
execution is forcing a confrontation with a discomforting fact for one of
the country's most liberal regions. It would be the first time in more
than 40 years that an inmate has been put to death north or east of
The death penalty does not exist in many states in the Northeast, a region
that has had its share of notorious killers: from David Berkowitz, the New
York City serial killer of the 1970's known as the Son of Sam, to Charles
Cullen, the nurse who has confessed to poisoning at least 23 people in New
Jersey and Pennsylvania. But the last time an inmate was executed in the
Northeast was in 1963, when New York electrocuted 2 men and New Jersey
Within New England in particular, the death penalty can seem like a relic.
Connecticut, which has 8 people on death row, has not executed anyone
since 1960. New Hampshire, the only other New England state that has
capital punishment, has not executed anyone since 1939; death row there is
empty. The last man executed in Rhode Island, the murderer John Gordon,
was hanged in 1845.
"I have always thought of New England as the last death-free zone in the
United States," said Michael A. Mello, a former capital defense lawyer in
Florida, Texas and other states and now a professor at Vermont Law School.
There have been 59 executions in the country so far this year, 85 %
percent of them in the South, according to the Death Penalty Information
Center, an anti-death penalty group.
The looming execution date for Mr. Ross, 45, is just beginning to renew
controversy over the death penalty here, where the notion of a state
execution can still evoke images of 17th-century witchcraft and piracy and
the public hangings employed as punishment.
Adding ambiguity, Mr. Ross, who has twice appealed his sentences and
delayed his execution, now says that further challenges would be futile.
Just as his crimes shocked rural eastern Connecticut two decades ago, his
decision to forgo his final appeal option is unsettling, said Michael P.
Lawlor, a Democrat from East Haven who is co-chairman of the judiciary
committee in the Connecticut General Assembly.
"One of the great ironies of this whole thing," Mr. Lawlor said, "is that
if he gets executed in January, the only reason it's going to happen is
because he wants it to happen."
Neither judges nor most politicians in the Northeast are pushing to speed
In New York, the state's highest court declared in June that the state's
death penalty law was unconstitutional, and lawmakers have been reluctant
so far to try to revise and restore it. In New Jersey, the state's highest
court in February effectively halted executions, ordering the state to
change its procedures for carrying them out. In Massachusetts, which has
not executed an inmate since 1947 and banned the death penalty in 1984,
Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, has pushed for a new state death penalty
measure but the Democratic Legislature has not passed it. Last year,
however, a death sentence was imposed in a federal trial in Boston. Gary
Sampson, the defendant in that case, killed 2 men who picked him up
separately while he hitchhiked in July 2001. Mr. Sampson was charged under
a federal law that allows capital punishment when a killing is committed
during a carjacking.
In Mr. Ross's case, even as activists and lawyers opposed to the death
penalty try to find a way to stay or delay the execution, some experts -
including some opposed to the death penalty - believe that Mr. Ross will
die as scheduled, at the Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers, near
the Massachusetts state line. "I think this execution is going to happen,"
said Professor Mello, "because he has the right to determine his own
destiny. Because lawyers can come up with clever reasons and arguments,
but ultimately, Ross has the law on his side." Opponents of the death
penalty are planning a public awareness campaign in the coming weeks, and
say that religious leaders will speak out against the execution. Some
death penalty experts, like Richard Dieter, executive director of the
Death Penalty Information Center, say that Connecticut residents may not
even know that capital punishment is an option here.
"I think as people realize this is the first in the area in many, many
years,'' he said, "it will wake people up to the fact that, yes, we do
have the death penalty in some of these states."
But even as the case generates new interest and new protests, some people
who have been close to it for 2 decades say they have already waited too
long for Mr. Ross to die.
"This guy is a poster boy for the death penalty," said Michael Malchik,
the former Connecticut State Police detective who arrested Mr. Ross in
1984, after the body of his last victim was found hidden inside a stone
wall bordering a field. "He deserves no sympathy from anyone. I think the
problem is that the people who are against it have never seen the other
side of it. They've never smelled it, looked at it, felt the weight of a
dead body in a body bag."
The depravity of Mr. Ross's crimes, the number of them, as well as his
apparent willingness to enter the execution chamber, complicate the
efforts of death penalty opponents seeking a platform to repeal the
state's capital punishment law.
"We have it on pretty good word from the powers that be that nobody's
going to touch this," said Robert Nave, director of the Connecticut
Network to Abolish the Death Penalty. "Of all the people up on death row,
without a doubt the most infamous is Michael Ross."
Connecticut's governor, M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, supports the death
penalty. Dennis Schain, a spokesman for Mrs. Rell, said her powers were
limited to granting a temporary reprieve. Asked whether Mrs. Rell would
consider such a reprieve, Mr. Schain said, "That depends on whether or not
the Legislature has an interest in changing the law, and to date there's
been no discussion of this."
After graduating from Cornell, in upstate New York, Mr. Ross moved to
Jewett City, north of Norwich, Conn., and became a life insurance salesman
for Prudential. He had grown up on his parents' egg farm in Brooklyn,
Conn., a tiny spot in the state's rural northeast. Mr. Malchik, the former
detective, said Mr. Ross told him that as a boy he had to strangle
under-producing chickens on the farm.
"He said, 'You know, strangling someone is not as easy as it looks on
TV,'" Mr. Malchik recalled. " 'I had to reapply my grip to finish them
Mr. Ross confessed to eight murders, six in Connecticut, two in New York,
and he was sentenced to death for four of them. In the death penalty
cases, he raped three of the victims before strangling them. In one case,
he raped and strangled a 14-year-old girl while her 14-year-old friend,
whom Mr. Ross had bound, was present. He then strangled the second girl.
Mr. Malchik said Mr. Ross had told him he expected to be caught
eventually. Mr. Malchik recalled how he and his partner drove the "casual,
cooperative" Mr. Ross to the crime scenes to have him explain what
happened. "We have dozens and dozens of pictures of him just pointing to
different spots where he did different things to different women,"
Mr.Malchik said. "He wasn't handcuffed or anything. We just took him
Mr. Ross fought his death sentence twice, first winning a retrial of the
sentencing phase only to be sentenced to death a second time, in 2000. He
appealed the second death sentence to the State Supreme Court and lost
earlier this year.
At one point in the 1990's, Mr. Ross tried to enter an agreement with the
state to be executed, saying then what he says now, that he did not want
to cause more pain for the families of his victims. A judge rejected the
"He really, truly and sincerely, and this is what the public I don't think
buys, he doesn't want to put the families through any more of this," said
T. R. Paulding, a lawyer who represents Mr. Ross, though not as his
Mr. Malchik, for one, does not believe him.
"First of all, it's been 20 years," he said. "Why now, after 20 years?
What did he do, wake up a couple of months ago and say, 'I think I want to
do away with my appeals'? I think he's manipulative. He loves publicity."
Mr. Paulding stressed that while Mr. Ross opposes execution, he feels that
further appeals, even to the United States Supreme Court, would not
overturn his sentence. "He doesn't think there's any way he'll get out
without death," Mr. Paulding said.
Mr. Ross professes discovery of a deep Christian faith since his arrest
and has posted essays on the subject on the Internet. He takes a
medication, Depo-Lupron; Mr. Paulding said the drug reduced the symptoms
of sexual sadism, a psychiatric disorder that some think is rooted in
childhood trauma, and a condition that Mr. Ross has long claimed caused
his criminal behavior.
"In his words, it kind of clears the demons or monsters out of his head,"
Mr. Paulding said. "You know, if you and I were sitting in a room having
coffee with him, we'd think he was just a normal guy. Of course, a lot of
people would disagree with that."
(source: New York Times)
Ruling could cause executions to surge or slow more
Nobody really expected Donnie Johnson to be put to death Nov. 16.
He was convicted of stuffing a plastic bag down his wife's throat and
suffocating her 20 years ago. But like four other death row inmates in
Tennessee, Johnson got a stay of execution even though he's exhausted
In each of the 5 cases, the execution was blocked because Tennessee is not
putting anyone to death while the courts wait for resolution in the
complicated case of Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman.
Abdur'Rahman was sentenced to die for stabbing a Nashville drug dealer to
death in 1986. But he claimed much later that he was the victim of a
dishonest prosecutor who concealed evidence.
The question is whether Abdur'Rahman's case deserves a second look because
he has new evidence of his innocence. Or does his appeal just raise the
same issues other courts have already dealt with?
It's a complicated procedural question, but a favorable ruling for the
state could start a string of executions in Tennessee, where there has
been only one in 44 years.
"The reason why this case is so important from a procedural standpoint is:
'What exceptions do the courts want to make to let prisoners come in and
make claims late?' '' said David Raybin, a legal analyst who helped write
Tennessee's death-penalty laws but is not involved in the case. "This has
very little do with guilt or innocence."
Death row inmates get one federal appeal in which they can bring up
problems with the trial. But the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death
Penalty Act doesn't allow a second petition.
"It's our position he gets one and only one shot at the writ of habeas
corpus,'' state Solicitor General Michael E. Moore said. Abdur'Rahman "had
it all the way to the Supreme Court and lost. That ought to end the
matter. This litigation has to have some end at some point."
In other words, the state has argued the court doesn't have to hear
Abdur'Rahman's claims of prosecutorial misconduct because they weren't
part of his initial federal appeal.
Bradley MacLean, who has represented Abdur'Rahman for eight years, said
the procedural question is being debated in many federal circuits.
Abu-Ali has never had his entire case heard and ruled on," MacLean said.
"His claims (of prosecutorial misconduct) have never been fully addressed
by any court.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay two days before Abdur'Rahman's
execution in April 2002 and heard arguments later that year. But the court
declined to rule and sent the case back to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of
Tennessee Attorney General Paul Summers, who typically doesn't talk about
pending cases, told The Associated Press a favorable ruling for the state
could have a sweeping impact.
"It would be a giant step for us," he said. ''Hopefully, it will put this
issue to rest."
The 6th Circuit could issue a narrow ruling that applies only to
Abdur'Rahman's case, but Raybin doesn't think that will happen. He said a
ruling against Abdur'Rahman would break the logjam on death row.
"I would expect to see multiple executions in succession," Raybin said.
But a ruling for Abdur'Rahman would give death row inmates additional
opportunities for appeal, Raybin said, delaying the already lengthy
It's been 11 months since the 6th Circuit heard arguments in the case with
"It can only indicate there can be some dissension or they may be waiting
on other courts in other issues to help them," Raybin said.
Summers said the state uses a 13-step process to review death-penalty
cases, giving those convicted every possible chance to contest the
legality of the trial.
But Summers said the process, designed to last 6 or 7 years, now drags on
for more than 20.
"People who are against the death penalty will never believe the system is
fair," he said. "Since they can't apparently defeat it on a wholesale
basis, they'll try to do it on a retail basis =F3 case by case, step by
step =F3 and try to wear the system out."
MacLean said awaiting a ruling is better than awaiting another execution
day. Abdur'Rahman "remains hopeful. He's anxious just like I am. We both
believe in the truth and justice in our position. That's what gives him
(source: Associated Press)
In wake of mistrial, experts ponder weight of witness testimony
After 2 years of preparation, the state's case against Westley Devon
Harris in the killing of six people at a farm appeared to lean heavily on
the testimony of a teenager who was his girlfriend at the time.
But in the wake of jury tampering charges that resulted in a mistrial Nov.
15 in the death penalty case at Luverne, legal experts wonder if witness
testimony is enough these days for jurors, who want to hear scientific
evidence before making a decision.
This is because of a more legal-savvy public, which feasts on a prime-time
TV diet of forensic fiction, court reality shows and hour-by-hour network
analysis of the nation's most high-profile cases that boast the importance
of DNA and fingerprints, says Steve Glassroth, a Montgomery criminal
"Programs like CSI has at least raised in jurors a consciousness of what
good forensic evidence can do," said Glassroth, referring to CBS' hit
forensics franchise. "You'd be living with your head in the sand if you
were not aware of the vast numbers convicted by testimony and cleared by
Harris is accused of the Aug. 26, 2002, shooting deaths of his
girlfriend's grandmother, parents and 3 brothers at their rural family
compound in south Alabama.
With so many unanswered questions posed during testimony, it seemed
scientific evidence would be needed to bolster the prosecution's case.
Among the questions raised: Was there another shooter, as Harris once told
authorities at the time of his arrest? Did DNA evidence, objected to by
the defense, directly link Harris to the killings? Should his girlfriend,
Janice Ball, be a suspect as the defense implied, even though their client
denied her involvement?
Janice Ball, 16 at the time of the crime, testified early in the trial,
telling the court she hid out with her boyfriend for three days after he
gunned down her family because she was afraid he'd also kill her or hurt
their year-old baby.
"If a jury listens to one person's testimony and is able to believe that
person's testimony, then that will support a verdict," said Joe Colquitt,
a former Tuscaloosa judge who now teaches law at the University of
Alabama. "It's the quality of the evidence that is important."
Defense attorneys, who didn't get a chance to present their case, tried to
discredit Ball's testimony by bringing out instances during the 3 days of
hiding when she could have called for help, while painting her as a
coconspirator in the slaughter. They pointed out the Ball had written
Harris letters about wanting her family dead because her father and
brother sexually abused her.
A Crenshaw County deputy also testified that he believed Janice Ball
should have been a suspect in the killings. Harris told investigators
someone else was involved, but that it wasn't Ball.
It was enough for jurors, like Daniel Bowers of Dozier, to question Ball's
"We were making a deliberate effort not to make a final conclusion. It
seemed very likely that (Harris) was guilty but to what extent I'm not
sure," Bowers told The Associated Press after the mistrial.
"As it stands I don't see Janice Ball as guilty as (the defense) implied,
but I would like to have had the chance to hear more of that."
Indeed, implications during testimony and attorney speeches just isn't
enough to convince a jury anymore, said former Alabama Supreme Court
Justice Terry Butts.
"I do think particularly nowadays in criminal cases that jurors are
looking for absolute proof," said Butts, who now practices law in Pike
County. "If there is any kind of circumstantial evidence that creates a
reasonable doubt they have difficulty overcoming that in reaching a guilty
Butts said TV shows have prompted jurors to focus on results from blood
samples, fingerprints and weapons.
In Harris' case, state investigators recovered six long guns and two
handguns from 2 friends and a cousin of Harris, who said he gave them the
guns between Aug. 26 and 27. Once again, the testimony was confusing and
Despite their initial statements to investigators, the men would not
testify as to whether Harris had admitted to the killings when handing
over the guns. One friend, Gregory Daniels, even changed his police
statement in court, saying Harris had nothing to do with the killings.
Harris' fingerprints were lifted off a car trunk, in which the body of
Ball's brother was found. But without fingerprints on any of the guns,
there was no direct link to Harris as the shooter.
A direct link is crucial to trying a death penalty case, said Bryan
Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in
Montgomery. Since 2002, more than 110 prison inmates have been freed
nationwide after DNA testing in their cases, according to the Death
Penalty Information Center.
"Too often we presume guilt, particularly in death penalty cases. The
integrity of the system is undermined if we don't insist the state proving
guilt beyond reasonable doubt," he said. "Any case based on insubstantial
evidence should be questioned."
Ballistics evidence from the guns in the Harris trial also did little for
the state's case, with only 2 of 3 recovered shotgun shells being tied to
one of the several weapons.
A day before the judge declared the mistrial, the prosecution's call for
DNA evidence from a state forensics analyst was delayed amid defense
objections. Circuit Judge Edward McFerrin did not rule on the objection in
open court, and the results of the DNA evidence were blocked.
Thirty years ago, a lack of DNA or other scientific evidence wouldn't
crumble a capital murder trial, but in recent years prosecutors and
defense attorneys have had to work harder to obtain solid forensic finding
to make their case.
"Without evidence, a case may give jurors pause," Glassroth said. "How
many cases have we seen eyewitness say that person on trial committed the
crime, only to see irrefutable science refute it. An eyewitness is the
least credible form of evidence."
(source: Associated Press)
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