Last week, I found myself less than an hour away from witnessing the state of Connecticut execute Michael Ross—a serial killer who raped and murdered eight women between 1981 and 1984. Although the execution was stayed at the last moment, the experience buttressed my long-held belief that the death penalty just doesn’t work: It punishes everyone—the condemned man, the victim’s families, peripheral people like me, and society as a whole. There has been nothing gained over this decadeslong fight over whether Ross is evil, ill, or even competent to help the state distinguish between the two.
I am not a true crime freak. I can’t watch violent movies, and I had no interest in ever coming face to face with a serial killer. I first became interested in this case in 1994 when the Connecticut Supreme Court overturned Ross’ six death sentences because evidence about his mental illness had been withheld from the jury. The prosecution’s expert psychiatric witness had agreed with the defense that Ross was mentally ill and wrote to the prosecutor indicating that he could not help the state’s attorney press for the death penalty. But the jury never saw that letter, and the state’s attorney never asked his expert about Ross’ mental illness, thus precluding the issue from being raised during cross-examination.
Most condemned persons would have shouted for joy when their death sentence was overturned; but Ross offered to die in 1994 because he didn’t want the families of his victims to suffer through another trial. The state supreme court’s decision coincided with my tenure as editor in chief and publisher of the Connecticut Law Tribune, so when Ross wrote to the paper about his decision to accept death, I wrote back, requesting an interview. Why does a perfectly healthy person want to accept death? I wondered. Was he trying to have the state assist him in a suicide? The only word I can use to describe my first telephone conversations and face-to-face meetings with him is “terror.” I was afraid the serial killer would reveal himself to me, but instead my almost-weekly conversations with him have revealed Michael Ross, the human being.
According to psychiatrists, Ross’ crimes were the result of a “paraphiliac disorder,” or sexual sadism. According to Dr. Fred Berlin of Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic, who testified for Ross as an expert witness, “When that powerful sex drive gets attached to the wrong types of persons, such as children, or attached to the wrong types of behaviors like sadistic behaviors, it still craves satisfaction, and it craves it in a way that when satisfied is going to cause great danger.”
After Ross’s first trial, Dr. Berlin prescribed Depo-Provera and later Depo-Lupron which, in effect, chemically castrated him. Until he began taking these medications, Ross had been plagued by violent sexual fantasies since college. “It was a double-edged sword,” Ross told first told me in 1996. “It freed my mind from obnoxious obsessive thoughts, but I also had to face what I had done.” Faced with what he says was horrendous guilt, Ross decided that accepting death was his moral obligation. But the state wouldn’t let him waive a new penalty trial and, after five more years of legal wrangling, he was again given six more death sentences.
One of the problems in a capital case in which mental illness is an issue is that those very things that should preclude the death penalty often causeit. Every psychiatrist who evaluated Ross—including the state’s own expert witness—looked at the number of bodies and concluded that there was a pattern of murders—indicating mental illness. That mental illness is a statutory mitigating factor, meaning the death penalty should not have been an option. Yet for the jury, the sheer number of dead bodies did not make him less culpable, but more so. They turned the mitigating factor into an aggravating factor and voted for death.
For the last 20 years, state prosecutors have ignored this in their quest for an execution. And while Ross has remained willing to drop his appeals, the public defenders who had represented him for 17 years were not going to give up so easily. This past December, they raised the issue the issue of whether Ross was competent to drop his appeals and submitted evidence to that effect to the Connecticut Supreme Court—a stack of affidavits, letters, and other information supporting their claim that Ross was incompetent—including a letter he had written to me admitting that he was trying to have the state help him commit suicide. They also accepted an affidavit from an expert on death-row syndrome, a condition that results in hopelessness, depression, and anxiety. But the state supreme court saw nothing in the 150-page proffer to warrant a stay of execution.
Eventually, this case ended up in the courtroom of Chief District Court Judge Robert N. Chatigny who stayed the execution on Jan. 24, pending a hearing on Ross’ competency. His question to the state: “What’s the rush?” Chatigny pointed out that if Ross were found incompetent after the execution, there would be no remedy. But the state did rush—all the way to U.S. Supreme Court, which lifted Ross’ stay on Jan. 27. In the meantime, the Jan. 26 date had passed, and the state reset the execution for 2 a.m. on Jan. 29.
I was at Osborne Prison starting at 10:30 a.m. on Jan. 28, visiting Ross and waiting for what seemed to be an unstoppable execution—unstoppable, that is, until Judge Chatigny ordered a 3 p.m. conference call with all the lawyers involved in the case. It was clear from the transcript that the judge’s message was primarily for T.R. Paulding, Ross’ pro bono lawyer, who had been inclined to honor his client’s wishes and allow him to die: “You are enabling him. You are not investigating this matter and fulfilling your obligation to the court and if you don’t do something, I’m going to have your license,” Chatigny threatened.
But the judge didn’t stop there. He said that, looking at this case in the best possible light for the defendant, Ross “never should have been convicted. Or if convicted, he never should have been sentenced to death because of his sexual sadism, which was found by every single person who looked at him [to be] clearly a mitigating factor.” Although new to the case, Chatigny had seen what no other judge had seen—or been brave enough to acknowledge: that the original jury had ignored the evidence of mental illness, evidence that should have saved his life.
When Paulding explained his conundrum to his client, Ross told him to “do whatever you have to do.” He could not go to his death thinking that he had caused T.R. to lose his livelihood. Yet the execution was not called off immediately. It wasn’t until 1 a.m. that we were told that it had been temporarily stayed. For me, with the possibility of reluctantly witnessing this execution looming, it was a nerve-wracking experience. But think of the families of the six victims who were also at the prison, waiting for Ross to pay the ultimate price for their daughters’ murders. Unimaginable.
Does the death penalty work? While the victims’ families believe in the death penalty, they would say the system doesn’t work because it has taken so long for Ross to “pay” for their daughters’ murders. Michael Ross agrees that the system is broken, both because he does not believe he got a fair trial and because he has seen how the families of his victims have suffered. Had he been allowed to plead guilty and given a life sentence 20 years ago, as he did in Windham County for the murders of two of his other victims, he would have faded into the woodwork. Everyone would have moved on, and the state of Connecticut would have saved millions of dollars trying to both kill and defend him at the same time.
Michael Ross’ case demonstrates the capriciousness of the death-penalty system from state to state, county to county, and jury to jury, when we are asked to judge whether someone is mentally ill. Prosecutors ignore their own expert witnesses. Juries turn the evidence on its head. And judges are more than ready to put their stamp of approval on it all. There has not been an execution in Connecticut for 45 years, perhaps for good reason. What good can there possibly be in one more death?