In the News

State Makes Final Preparations, Courts Hear Final Arguments in Ross Case

by Lynne Tuohy
The Hartford Courant

May 13, 2005

Antonio Ponvert III and Jim Nugent

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.

Serial killer Michael Ross spent the hours before his scheduled execution visiting with his father, close friends and lawyer, and reaffirmed his decision to die.

“Michael is going forward,” said public defender Barry Butler, Ross’ former lawyer who later became his confidant. Butler visited with Ross at length Thursday morning. “Absolutely nothing will stop it from Michael’s point of view,” Butler said. “He’s more solid in his decision that I’ve ever seen him.”

But outside his prison walls-as the execution set for 2:01 a.m. today approached-a game of legal brinkmanship spanning three federal courts from Connecticut to Washington, D.C., was playing out into the night.

Late Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected what appeared to be the last of the legal efforts to stop Connecticut’s first execution in 45 years, and state officials said they were determined to move forward.

The day’s legal drama began close to 10:30 a.m., when U.S. District Judge Christopher F. Droney in Hartford refused to grant a temporary restraining order halting the execution, and also rejected an attempt by Ross’ sister, Donna Dunham, to appeal on his behalf.

The temporary restraining order had been sought by attorney Antonio Ponvert III, who claims Ross’ voluntary execution would be likely to prompt “suicide contagion” among inmates who are mentally ill and prone to suicide attempts.

Droney did not buy Ponvert’s arguments, stating in his one-paragraph order that the plaintiffs “have failed to show they would suffer immediate and irreparable injury, loss or damage that would require the issuance of an order.”

Droney did say his court would remain open until 2:01 a.m. this morning to receive further motions to stay the execution.

By the time Droney ruled, Ross had been awake for nearly five hours, had a breakfast of oatmeal and grapefruit juice, watched some television and read newspapers, according to Department of Correction spokesman Brian Garnett.

Ross was moved to the execution holding cell at 8:10 a.m. It resembles his other open-barred cell at the old death row at Osborn Correction Institution, except that it is encased in Plexiglas, with a circle of holes drilled midway down the front of the door so Ross could communicate back and forth with visitors.

Where formerly Ross could hold hands with visitors, now he could not. Only priests were allowed physical contact, which was necessary so they could give him the Holy Eucharist, which Ross received at 9 a.m., and, later, last rites.

Butler said he and Ross joked Thursday morning about the “Hannibal Lecter death cell,” a reference to the Plexiglas cell holding the cannibal psychiatrist in the thriller film “Silence of the Lambs.”

Meanwhile, a small band of death penalty opponents was nearing the end of a five-day, 30-mile walk that began Sunday in Hartford.

David Cruz-Uribe, an organizer of the march, said such derogatory remarks as “Get a life” were hurled at him and other protesters from passing cars. He said it was not the number of shouts, but their angry tone, that disturbed him.

Ross was sentenced to death for killing four young women from eastern Connecticut in 1983 and 1984. He has admitted to killing eight women in all, and raping several others who survived his attacks.

Others coped with the crimes-and the punishment-in their own ways.

Public defender Karen Goodrow, who along with Butler represented Ross during Ross’ last penalty phase hearing in 2000, took the day off and spent part the morning in her cellar, confronting an old boxing bag hanging there.

“I beat the hell out of that,” she said, then paused to reflect on the “profound sadness” that she said is about far more than Ross’ fate.

“I think he’s as much at peace as he can be,” Goodrow said. “I think about Ed and Lera [Shelley, parents of 14-year-old victim Leslie Shelley] and the other families. And I wonder what those girls would be doing now if they were alive. They’d be going to baseball games and school concerts-what the rest of us are doing. It’s beyond Michael. The effect just keeps moving forward.”

For his part, Craig Miner drove around the streets of Enfield Thursday afternoon with a different message pasted to the windows of his black 2005 Hummer: “Ross Must Die. 5-13-05”

Miner, 33, of Enfield, said he wanted to remind people of Ross’ crimes. “He killed so many and has to be held accountable. It’s too bad it took so long,” he said.

Rebuffed by Droney, Ponvert and Diane Polan, Dunham’s lawyer, immediately appealed to the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. There, staff arranged for arguments to take place by video relay connecting three locales: the appeals court in Manhattan, a small conference room equipped with monitors at the Hartford federal courthouse and a similar room in a federal court in Vermont, where Appellate Judge Peter W. Hall resides.

While those links were tested, Ross lunched on a cheeseburger and hash browns before resuming his visits.

Arguments on both cases took place over the video links at 2:30 p.m.

In Hartford, two large video screens in the courtroom and smaller screens at the tables where the lawyers sat allowed the parties to see Judges Robert D. Sack, Robert A. Katzmann and Hall.

Lawyers for the state grouped together on one side of the courtroom, including Chief State’s Attorney Christopher Morano and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

In New York, lawyer Eric Freedman argued on behalf of the Dunham lawsuit, saying Droney did not have the full record before him when he made a decision to reject the request and as a result did not have important documents that included some of Ross’ writings. Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Harry Weller countered that the issue before the court was narrow: Dunham has no authority because Ross has repeatedly been deemed mentally competent to forgo his appeals and opt for execution, Weller argued.

Ponvert then argued his claim the state Department of Correction’s protocol for responding to suicide was inadequate and that expert testimony supports the allegation that Ross’ execution will prompt a “suicide contagion.”

Blumenthal attacked the timing of Ponvert’s motion, saying it was manipulative, and questioned the lack of hard evidence to back up the assertions.

At 3 p.m., while those arguments were underway, Ross chose to have for his last meal the same thing all the other inmates at Osborn would be eating for dinner-turkey a la king with rice, mixed vegetables, white bread, fruits and a beverage.

On Jan. 28, when his execution the next morning seemed imminent, Ross also opted not to request any special last meal. Some close to him said Ross, who had tried to guard his privacy, knew his selections would be announced; others said he did not wish to further taunt the families of his victims with news of his menu selection.

Also at mid-afternoon Thursday, Jennifer Tabor sat in a Coventry restaurant and said she never thought she would be able to witness the execution of the man who killed her 19-year-old stepsister, Robin Stavinsky. Tabor was 12 at the time of the murder, and she hatched a plan in which she would stand outside the gates of the prison on the morning of his death.

“I always pictured myself out there with the rest of the people, holding a big sign, in favor of his death,” Tabor said. “I always promised Robin I would be there on that day.”

Instead, Tabor went to Somers Thursday night as a witness, and with her siblings-Debbie Dupuis and David Riquier-represented the second generation of those affected by Ross’ murders. That generation stood in for parents too weary from years of grief to watch the last chapter of their ordeal.

Tabor carried the statement she planned to read afterward: “We feel sorrow for the Ross family and respect their grief at losing a family member. We know that the sadness of losing Robin will always remain, but now the anger caused by Michael Ross’ crimes can begin to fade into a safe place. We hope the words, thoughts and life of Michael Ross will become a faint memory and the notoriety that surrounded him will finally end.”

As evening neared, about 45 protesters left Somers Congregational Church for their final journey up Shaker Road.

Marjorie Henry, 71, had participated in four days of the march, and said this final stretch was especially cathartic. She said that as the day wore on she was getting increasingly anxious at the thought of the execution. “I feel like I’ve got tension on a trigger.”

Elizabeth Brancato, 58, of Torrington, whose mother was murdered 26 years ago, walked the entire length of the five-day march. She felt that murder victims’ families who oppose capital punishment had to be represented. She said she sees the execution as state-sponsored homicide.

“It feels like we’re all doing it and in fact we are all doing it. It’s not the state as some faceless entity. The state is us. Maybe that’s why I’ve been doing this-to feel less a part of it.”

At 5:30 p.m., Ponvert learned that the 2nd Circuit Court judges had denied his appeal and Polan’s. He filed his appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court roughly an hour later. Polan eventually followed suit.

Blumenthal announced at 11 p.m. that the U.S. Supreme Court had rejected the last of the appeals.

“We’re determined that the criminal justice process really needs to reach finality,” Blumenthal had said earlier in the evening.

Ross’ lawyer, T.R. Paulding, who asked that the January execution be halted at the 11th hour after a federal judge castigated his participation and questioned Ross’ competence, was strangely out of the loop Thursday. The challenges were so peripheral, he was not summoned to court to take part in the arguments.

He did meet with Ross mid-day. “I wanted to make sure he hasn’t changed his mind in any way,” Paulding said.” He’s totally unwavering. He’s resolute.”

Blumenthal and Morano were at the prison as 2 a.m. approached to advise Commissioner Theresa Lantz on whether to proceed. Contrary to the near-execution in January, no stays had been issued by any federal appeals court as midnight neared.

“If there is no stay, then there is no stay,” Morano said. At that point, the only thing that could stop the execution would be an objection from Ross himself, Blumenthal said.

“Should Michael Ross at any point between now and 2:01 [this] morning raise his hand or indicate in some way that he wants to exercise some legal right, all he has to do is say so, and the machinery of death will halt,” Blumenthal said.

Butler was confident that will not happen.

“He’s ready to go. He’s in good spirits,” Butler said. “It’s almost disturbing. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s kind of surreal.”

Courant Staff Writers Alaine Griffin, Roselyn Tantraphol, Jeffrey Cohen and Diane Struzzi contributed to this story.