Ross request for competency exam delays his execution again

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by Michael P. Mayko
Connecticut Post

February 1, 2005

The knell tolled at 11:59 p.m. Monday, killing the death warrant but not Michael Ross.

The serial killer escaped still another date with death Monday, and legal experts believe it will be months if ever before another date is issued.

That's because Ross and his lawyer, T. R. Paulding, Monday did a complete turnabout, from demanding execution to requesting a full competency exam.

Ross, a 45-year-old Cornell University graduate, has admitted murdering at least eight women in Connecticut and New York, many of whom were raped.

He was originally scheduled to die Wednesday by lethal injection at Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers, but the execution has been postponed several times after legal challenges.

"I can only imagine the emotional roller coaster it has been over the last week for [Ross victims'] families," Gov. M. Jodi Rell said Monday. "My heart goes out to them."

She added: "When the process of the competency hearing is complete, assuming he is found competent and there are no further legal impediments, the state should move forward with his execution."

Ross' last date with death was 9 p.m. Monday but that fell by the boards about 11 a.m.

"We've always said that Ross could ask for a hearing up to a minute before he was executed," said state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. "He's now made that request."

Blumenthal believes the hearing will begin in New London Superior Court.

"The next step will be for the chief state's attorney's office and possibly my office to respond to it," said Blumenthal.

Edward Gavin, a lawyer with Meehan, Meehan & Gavin in Bridgeport, which has defended death penalty cases, believes it will take "at least 60 days, probably longer," before an independent team can complete an evaluation.

"Ross has been in jail 18 years," Gavin said. "What the team will need to do is check his daily logs, activity reports, interviews he's given, his writings it's not like going in and having your heart evaluated. This is going to take time."

It should also involve a lot of testimony from experts, according to Antonio Ponvert III, a lawyer with Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder in Bridgeport, who represents Ross' father.

"There should be at least two psychiatrists, one provided by the state and one by the public defender's office," and possibly "a dozen witnesses," including experts in prison management and death-row syndrome.

Ponvert said the experts should testify in an adversarial setting in front of a new Superior Court judge.

"Due process in this situation requires a thorough analysis of Michael's state of mind," said Ponvert. "A three-week examination is not something that's meaningful."

Once the examination is complete, Gavin said, there will be a court hearing. If Ross is judged competent it will likely will set off appeals through the state and federal criminal justice system.

"The fact that we have a constitutional rights case pending before [Chief U.S. District Judge Robert Chatigny] will give us a chance to monitor the thoroughness of the state's action," Ponvert said.

If Ross is judged incompetent, Gavin believes the state will send him to Whiting Forensic Institute in Middletown to restore his competency.

Restoration could take years.

"I can't predict what will happen," said Blumenthal. "I do believe the sentence is a lawful one and the criminal justice system should be permitted to achieve finality."

What triggered the latest challenge was a phone call from Chatigny to Paulding Friday. In it, Chatigny chided Paulding for failing to aggressively investigate challenges to Ross' competency.

At one point, the judge threatened to lift the lawyer's legal license if he was wrong about Ross' competency.

"Judge Chatigny is fair and showed how much he cares about the rules of law," Ponvert maintained. "He saw a monstrous injustice about to be committed and did what he had to do to fix it."

As a result, Ponvert said Paulding "did what he should have done months ago."

In motions filed Monday, Paulding maintained that Dr. Michael Norko, a state psychiatrist who determined Ross competent, now claims he might change his decision if he had access to new evidence released last week.

Some of that evidence includes a claim Ross is suffering from death-row syndrome

a desire to be executed because after years of spending 23 hours a day in a cell with almost no human contact.

"Chatigny toured death row [in an unrelated civil matter]. He knew what the conditions were like. He saw issues that needed to be looked into," Gavin said.

"This is just a continuing example of how Michael Ross manipulated the system," Gavin said. "Quite frankly, I think he finds great joy in this."

The state must move forward with the execution, said Danielle Rea, a Milford woman who joined Survivors of Homicide as a result of the 1991 murder of her brother.

"If Michael Ross manipulated the system, then shame on the lawyers and judges who allowed this to happen," she said. "How much longer are the lawyers and the judges going to make victims' families suffer? Michael Ross received more attention than any of the victims he raped and murdered."

"I cannot understand those who feel that the death sentence should be abolished," said Al Kerstein, a death penalty supporter and retired head of the Greater Bridgeport Better Business Bureau. "Cruel and inhuman punishment? Give me a break. How about those that were killed, and their survivors and families?"