Conn. murderer is 'poster child for the death penalty'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SOMERS, Conn. - For about as long as Michael Ross has been alive, no New England state has carried out a death sentence.

Both Ross' life and that long hiatus in executions could end Wednesday, when the convicted serial killer is scheduled to die in Connecticut's death chamber.

If all goes according to plan, it will be the first execution in the six New England states in 45 years.

In a region generally seen as more socially liberal than such strongholds of capital punishment as Texas and Virginia, the case has become the focus of intense interest, in part because Ross, 45, has said he wants to die.

Although death penalty opponents maintain that he could probably delay his execution for at least five years with various appeals, Ross has instructed his lawyer to drop all challenges to the sentence and to oppose others, including Ross' father, who have sought to intervene on his behalf.

"He does not want to put the victims' families through any more pain," said T.R. Paulding, Ross' attorney. "He believes it's the right thing to do."

Ross, a Cornell University graduate, admitted killing female victims in Connecticut and New York in the early 1980s. He also raped some of his victims.

After nearly 18 years on Death Row, Ross is scheduled to die at about 2 a.m. Wednesday. The execution by lethal injection will take place at the Osborn Correctional Institution, part of a complex of state prisons in this northern Connecticut village.

But several last-minute legal challenges remain. Yesterday, the Connecticut Supreme Court scheduled a hearing - the first in its history - to consider arguments by the Missionary Society of Connecticut, a church group that wants Ross' sentence commuted to life in prison.

The state's highest court also heard arguments Friday by public defenders and the lawyer representing Dan Ross, the convict's father. Both parties say a lower court improperly denied their motions to intervene in the case.

Death penalty opponents hold little hope that they can delay the execution. All legal challenges have failed so far, and Gov. Jodi Rell said last month that she would not grant Ross a reprieve.

She also promised to veto any move by the state legislature to abolish the death penalty or impose a moratorium on executions.

"We're going to be in with Texas, Virginia, Florida and that whole crowd," said Robert Nave, executive director of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, referring to states that routinely carry out executions. "I don't care how strong an advocate you are of the death penalty. This is a symbolic act of revenge, not a deterrent. No one is going to be deterred from murder by Michael Ross' execution."

The Ross case is coming to a head when executions nationwide have declined. Last year there were 59 executions, down from a high of 98 executions in 1999. And the number of death sentences handed down has fallen by more than half since 1998.

Those numbers seem to reflect new concerns about capital punishment in light of a spate of exonerations nationwide, brought about by DNA evidence that clears convicts, doubts cast on jailhouse confessions and questions regarding the competence of many murder suspects' legal defense.

In 2000, Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in Illinois. New Jersey has imposed a similar moratorium, and last year courts threw out the death penalty statutes in New York and Kansas.

But "volunteers" such as Ross are difficult to stop, said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, who noted that Gary Gilmore, the first convict to be executed after the reinstatement of capital punishment in the 1970s, was a volunteer. About one in nine convicts who are executed fall into that category.

"I don't think it reflects a shift in attitudes," Dieter said. "The region remains reluctant to impose the death penalty."

Of the New England states, only Connecticut and New Hampshire have capital punishment statutes. In addition to Ross, five other prisoners are on Connecticut's Death Row. In New Hampshire, where an execution last occurred in 1939, there is no one on Death Row, and the state has no death chamber.

Recent surveys have shown ambivalence in Connecticut residents' attitudes about the ultimate punishment.

A Quinnipiac University poll found that, given a choice between imposing the death sentence or life in prison without parole, 49 percent of those polled said they favored life imprisonment, compared with 37 percent for the death penalty.

But residents overwhelmingly support Ross' execution. A University of Connecticut poll last week found that 81 percent of those surveyed thought the sentence should be carried out.

That may reflect public revulsion at the gruesome nature of the crimes. Ross, who has said he suffers from "sexual sadism," strangled his victims.

"People say that time heals all wounds," Edwin Shelley, the father of a 14-year-old whom Ross raped and strangled on Easter 1984, said after a court appearance last month. "That wound is still as open today as it was then. You can live with it, you can adjust to it, but when it's brought up, it hurts like hell."

Death penalty opponents concede that Ross is a "poster child for the death penalty," in the words of Rev. Stephen Sidorak, executive director of the Christian Conference of Connecticut. But they question whether years in prison, much of that time spent in solitary confinement, and medication for his mental illness have left Ross unable to make rational judgments.

"If this execution occurs, it would make Connecticut appear to be complicit in an act of state-assisted suicide," said Sidorak, whose group represents 15 denominations. "Just because a Death Row inmate asks to be executed, we don't have to oblige him."

But Paulding, Ross' attorney, says courts have ruled repeatedly that his client, who is frequently described as highly intelligent and articulate, is fit to make the decision to go to the death chamber.

"He's been evaluated for competency three times, and he's been found competent," Paulding said. "He's truly competent, truly rational."

In the most recent challenge to his mental state, Ross was interviewed last month in his prison cell for four hours by a court-appointed psychiatrist. He talked at length about the families of his victims and why he should die.

"I believe I have a moral responsibility to these people," he said in excerpts published this month after a judge ruled he was competent. "I owe them. I killed their daughters."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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