Tuesday, May 24, 2005

New England Takes on the Death Penalty

This is something I’ve been debating doing for a while, and after getting numerous requests and now that I have some more free time in the summer, I’m going to attempt to restart this blog. Hopefully it doesn’t fail like last time, but I suspect it might. My problem is that I like to do things like this well, if I start them, and I’m not sure I have the time (other commitments, baseball stuff, blah blah blah) to do this more than updates a couple of times a week. However, there will inevitably be numerous things I want to comment on and I have no idea how I’ll balance it all. Maybe I’ll narrow my focus, I’m not sure. But I don’t want to want to be prohibited from writing about something interesting just because it’s not in my “line of work.” I really have no idea. The only way you’ll know is to stay tuned and keep reading. So, onto today’s entry.

Eleven days ago, on May 13, 2005, Michael Ross was executed, becoming the latest of a number of convicted prisoners whose execution became an event greater than them facing punishment for their crimes, but rather served as a greater battle between abolitionists and retentionists. Like Karla Faye Tucker before him, Ross' execution marked the symbolic tearing down of a barrier; in his case that against execution in New England.

Ross became the first person to be executed in New England since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Only two of the six New England states permit capital punishment, and New Hampshire doesn't in any practical sense, as they don't have anybody currently on death row and seem unlikely to sentence anyone to death in the near future. Connecticut did have bodies on death row, but hadn't executed anybody in over twenty years, so liberal New Englanders could still point to the death penalty as something practiced by uncivilised Southerners of the blue states stuck in the past. While these sorts of arguments always ignored the inconvenient examples of Oregon, Washington and California, and while Texas and Connecticut are not even in the same hemisphere, the fact that Ross' sentence was carried out shows a willingness to embrace capital punishment that previously wasn't explicitly present.

Although I will likely write some article explaining my full opinions on capital punishment later, I have no problem with it in many cases, including that of Michael Ross. I’m left-wing, but I’m not going to write a case arguing this was a crime against humanity. I’d just like to look at Ross’ case and a couple of surrounding points more closely.

A sizable percentage of serial killers have average or above-average intelligence, but Ross was still the rare Ivy League-educated murderer. He graduated from Cornell in 1981 with a degree in agricultural economics. Like many killers, Ross' sexual fantasies had turned violent while, or even before, he was at Cornell. He committed a rape early in his senior year there, and soon after committed the rape and murder of fellow Cornell student Dzung Ngoc Tu, 25, on May 12, 1981.

Ross would graduate from Cornell and find a job in insurance after university. He would also murder seven more girls, ranging in age from 14-23, over the next three years. Many serial killers say they never felt remorse, but Ross claims he did after each murder, promising never to hurt anyone again, but breaking that vow months later. Whether Ross is telling the truth is difficult to ascertain, but some supporting evidence indicates that he had this subconscious desire to be captured and punished for his crimes, which differed from the desire some killers have for infamy.

After Ross' eighth murder, that of Wendy Baribeault, 17, witness testimony pointed to a Blue Toyota that had been seen near Baribeault before she disappeared. As the police meticulously checked the Blue Toyotas in the surrounding counties, detectives interviewed Michael Ross. Chief Investigator Michael Malchik began the process of interviewing a list of blue Toyota owners which brought him to Michael Ross. Malchik testified that during their initial meeting, Ross enticed Malchik to ask more questions by dropping subtle hints that he was their man. He also confessed to having two prior arrests for sex offences, and Malchik brought him down to the station for questioning. During the interrogation, Ross confessed to the eight murders.

Although there is no doubt concerning Ross’ guilt, some controversy continues about the judge’s behaviour during the trial. Karen Clark, who covered the case for The Day of New London reported that Judge Ford allegedly demonstrated inappropriate behaviour toward the defence team and their witnesses. He read mail, clipped his hails, rolled his eyes and appeared bored during defence testimony. Some felt his lack of respect toward the defence could have influenced the jury. A psychiatrist testifying for the defence, Dr. Berlin, filed a complaint with the Judicial Review Council concerning Judge Ford’s treatment of defence witnesses, but the council decided that there was insufficient evidence showing misconduct on Ford's part and the complaint was dismissed. If the above statements are correct, I find it hard to see why such a complaint concerning the judge’s conduct should have been dismissed, but I can’t speculate any further.

After his conviction, Ross spent his time in prison submitting his writings and doing interviews about what he viewed as mistreatment by the judicial system. He seemingly cooperated with the investigation of the murders he committed, but in return wanted his acts to be seen as what he believes they are: an illness that he cannot control. In 1992, Ross made the decision not to fight any more appeals. At this point he was being treated with large doses of Depro-Lupron, a drug that inhibits testosterone and in Ross' case, he has said, resulted in ending the fantasies of rape and murder. Ross claimed that now that his fantasies were gone, he had to deal with the reality of his actions and the pain he caused others.

Despite Ross' assertions that he wanted to accept the death sentence, appeals were often filed on his behalf. Some of these appeals were centered around the fact Ross was mentally ill in some manner, because he desired to die. Ross hired a lawyer to represent him and fight to push ahead with his execution, and he fired the public defenders that had previously represented him. The public defenders continued to fight against the execution on Ross’ behalf, with his father being one of the leading advocates for postponing his sentence. Ross’ lawyer, T.R. Paulding, represented his client at every recent step of the appeal process, arguing in favour of his competency and that the execution should not be delayed.

Paulding won at every level, in front of a Superior Court judge, the state Supreme Court and one federal judge, until he ran into Chief U.S. District Judge Robert N. Chatigny, who issued two orders to stay Ross' execution, only to have them vacated by federal appeals courts. However, during a 55-minute telephone conference with lawyers involved in the lawsuit and Paulding, Chatigny proceeded to challenge the adequacy and propriety of Paulding's representation of Ross. Chatigny told Paulding, "We are not in this profession to help people get killed," and he threatened to go after Paulding's law license if Ross died and a later investigation showed there was evidence to establish that Ross was not mentally competent. Under this quasi-threat of blackmail, Paulding filed appeals to halt Ross’ execution, to ensure that his client was competent. It was the fifth stay of Ross’ execution in six years, but he was proven sane at the hearings, and was executed about four and a half months after the Paulding-Chatigny showdown.

While there are some mental conditions that should mitigate a death sentence, whatever some argued that Ross’ possessed, such as narcissistic personality disorder, as one psychiatrist argued, should not have. Even if he has desires to die to achieve infamy, like some of the more famous serial killers possessed, he won’t achieve it through execution alone and narcissism isn’t a mental condition comparable to an inability to comprehend your own trial and legal options. Whether he wants to die for altruistic reasons of sparing his victim’s families any more pain and accepting punishment or whether he has personal stake in achieving more fame through death, it doesn’t change the fact that the state’s sentence is being followed through on, which should be a goal of any criminal justice system, and it doesn’t change the fact that he’s competent, not mentally deficient.

Many complain that people are always trying to skirt responsibility, pointing to mitigating factors as a way to try to escape punishment, and I think that's sometimes, not always, a valid complaint. So why does Ross' case pose such a problem for some? Even beyond the issue of capital punishment, the same judges who sentenced him to death forced him to fight that very sentence. That is absurd, as anybody should be able to rationally choose to end their life, if they so desire.

Was Ross' mind warped by the fact he spent 18 years on death row? Even though he's always shown an uncommon desire to accept punishment, that is a possibility which could be true. However, what is the alternative? Beyond execution it is either to prolong Ross' living arrangements in the very environment that is warping his mind by continually appealing his death sentence or to commute his death sentence, which would prove problematic and set a dangerous precedent. Nobody should choose to end their life on a whim, because they were fired or dumped by their girlfriend or boyfriend. However, if someone has thought about it long and hard and decided they don't want to live anymore, like Ross had (and he certainly has a good case for the "things will never get better" argument), they should be allowed to die. Once it had been ascertained Ross was sane, it was a waste of time and money to force Ross to use his last appeals instead of waiving them. Secondly, it was dangerous for the bench to threaten his lawyer with disbarment for following his client's non-illegal wishes and for them to presume that they know what is in Ross' true interests and what is not. I read reports not long after Ross’ execution that said that Judge Chatigny used very strong language when going after Paulding and that he made it clear that he’d look into going after Paulding, and if that is the case, his conduct is worthy of investigation.