Killer's execution is delayed despite supreme court ruling

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by James Barron and Stacey Stowe
The New York Times

January 29, 2005

Antonio Ponvert III and Jim Nugent, lawyers for Daniel Ross, Michael Bruce Ross's father, leaving the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

The United States Supreme Court turned down two last-minute moves yesterday to postpone Connecticut's execution of a convicted serial killer, clearing the way for the first execution in New England in 45 years, but it was delayed again this morning with little more than an hour to spare.

Michael Bruce Ross had been scheduled to die at 2:01 a.m. today, but shortly before 1 a.m. state officials postponed the lethal injection until 9 p.m. Monday, after a question was raised about Mr. Ross's legal representation.

One of Mr. Ross's lawyers, T. R. Paulding, said early this morning that "a question has been raised about a conflict of interest about my continued representation of Michael Ross. I feel it is imperative to address this before his execution can proceed."

Mr. Paulding had insisted that Mr. Ross was sincere in his wish to die and mentally competent to make the decision to stop the appeals. Opponents of the execution have said that Mr. Ross is simply masking a desire to commit suicide.

Mr. Ross had been awaiting death inside a prison on a snowy plain about a mile from the Massachusetts border in Somers, Conn.

Mr. Ross - who would be the 74th inmate to die since Connecticut adopted capital punishment in 1893 - spent the day near the death chamber as lawyers made arguments in Manhattan and filed briefs in Washington.

As word of the Supreme Court's decision spread, protesters made plans to march from a parking lot to a driveway leading to the building in which Mr. Ross waited to die. Their two-mile march on the bleak ribbon of roads that threads through the countryside came on a night when the temperature was barely above zero.

Mr. Ross, 45, a Cornell University graduate and former life insurance salesman who grew up on an egg farm in Brooklyn, Conn., has admitted to killing eight girls and young women in the early 1980's and raping most of his victims before he murdered them. He was first convicted in 1987 and sentenced to death for four of the killings.

He is one of seven people on death row in Connecticut. No one has been executed there since 1960, when Joseph Taborsky was electrocuted for a string of robberies and murders. New Hampshire, the only other New England state that has capital punishment, has not executed anyone since 1939.

Mr. Ross did not fight the state's execution plans. He has said repeatedly that he is prepared to die - that he hoped his death would ease the pain of his victims' relatives - and he repeatedly waived his rights to appeal as he cooperated with the preparations for his execution. But that did not stop legal efforts to block the state from injecting lethal chemicals into his bloodstream.

His undisputed guilt left death penalty opponents with little leverage to use his case to pressure lawmakers to repeal Connecticut's death penalty statute, and last month, Gov. M. Jodi Rell promised to veto any such measure. A Quinnipiac University poll this month showed that 70 percent of those questioned supported executing Mr. Ross, while only 59 percent supported the death penalty in general.

The Supreme Court granted a petition from Connecticut's attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, who asked that a stay of execution be lifted. That stay had been granted earlier in the day by a three-judge federal appeals panel in Manhattan, and for hours it appeared that the state would have to wait until at least tomorrow to carry out its death warrant.

But as Mr. Blumenthal pressed for the execution to go forward, correction officials began the final preparations to end Mr. Ross's life. Protesters began gathering outside the prison while witnesses and reporters waited for word from Washington.

It came shortly before 10 p.m.

Not only did the Supreme Court side with Mr. Blumenthal, it turned down a separate plea from Mr. Ross's father, Daniel Ross. He asserted that executing Michael Ross would violate a father's constitutional right to a relationship with his son.

The Supreme Court did not issue any comment about how the two orders were decided. Following standard practice, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was responsible for marshaling the other justices, since she handles cases from the Second Circuit. The justices do not have to convene at the court, but can communicate with each other through their law clerks, who remain in their chambers.

As officials waited into the evening for word from the Supreme Court, officials set up two areas outside the prison where Mr. Ross was scheduled to die: one for supporters of the death penalty, the other for opponents. Each area had its own heated trailer, with hot chocolate and water.

Inside, where Mr. Ross had been the only inmate on his tier, a telephone line waited in case anyone with the power to stop the execution should call. Mr. Ross - who in his years as an inmate had been cited twice for fighting and once for having contraband - was allowed to choose four witnesses. The commissioner of correction, Theresa Lantz, chose 12. Five news media witnesses were to be driven to the prison after boarding a bus elsewhere.

Officials said they would keep the identity of Mr. Ross's executioner secret. The grim preparations came after a day of legal maneuvering that initially focused on a brief that the lawyer for Daniel Ross, Antonio Ponvert III, acknowledged writing in the hours before dawn on Thursday.

But the judges on the appeals court panel, Robert D. Sack, Robert A. Katzmann and Peter W. Hall, said that they found no case law to support his claim that the execution would deny Daniel Ross the constitutional right to a relationship with his son.

Mr. Blumenthal argued the case in person, urging the appeals court to bring it to a close. "The point is there must be finality for the credibility of the criminal justice system," he said.

He noted that the Connecticut Supreme Court had already cleared the way for the execution, and said that the late-hour challenges were based on arguments that had repeatedly been rejected by Connecticut courts.

But the appeals court judges were clearly worried by a letter that Mr. Ponvert brought to the hearing. That letter, from another Connecticut inmate who said he knew Michael Ross, suggested that Mr. Ross might have been coerced into deciding he was ready to die.

The inmate, Ramon A. Lopez, said he remembered talking with Mr. Ross "through the air vents" in prison.

Repeatedly misspelling Mr. Ross's first name - Mr. Lopez put the e before the a - Mr. Lopez explained that he had been looking for legal advice on his own case. "In the midst of the conversation," he wrote, "I recall Micheal Ross telling that he did not want to die."

Mr. Lopez went on to accuse a psychologist and a mental-health worker in the prison system of brainwashing Mr. Ross.

A spokesman for the Department of Correction did not return a call yesterday seeking information about the two men.

Mr. Blumenthal, the attorney general, wasted no time in going to the Supreme Court. He filed a 27-page brief less than three hours after the appeals court issued its ruling in Manhattan.

Mr. Ponvert and Jim Nugent, the Connecticut lawyers for Mr. Ross's father, later filed two separate appeals to the Supreme Court. In one, they challenged Mr. Blumenthal's move to eliminate the 24-hour postponement. In the other, they asked for time to hold a full-scale competency hearing for Mr. Ross.

Mr. Blumenthal answered with 26 additional pages of briefs.

Mr. Ross said he committed his crimes because he suffers from sexual sadism, which drives him to commit violent sexual acts. In prison he took several medications, including medication for depression and anxiety, as well as a drug that lowers his testosterone level.

After the State Supreme Court upheld his most recent appeal of his death sentence, in May, Mr. Ross dismissed his public defenders. In October, he told Judge Patrick Clifford of Superior Court in New London that he did not want to pursue further appeals.

Judge Clifford set the execution date.

But that was not the end of Mr. Ross's case. In December, public defenders and people not connected to the case filed a furious set of appeals to prevent the execution, based mostly on claims that Mr. Ross was mentally incompetent to make a rational decision to forgo appeals.

Julia Preston contributed reporting for this article.