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Where Execution Feels Like Relic, Death Looms

By WILLIAM YARDLEY

The New York Times
November 21, 2004

HARTFORD, Nov. 19 - At 2:01 a.m. on Jan. 26, corrections workers in northern Connecticut are to begin administering a fatal flow of chemicals into the bloodstream of Michael Bruce Ross.

The execution by lethal injection would be the culmination of a two-decade case that began in 1984 when Mr. Ross confessed to strangling six teenage girls and two young women, four while he was a life insurance salesman in eastern Connecticut, one while he was a student at Cornell University. He has decided against further appeals of his sentence.

Beyond resurrecting the vicious details of the killings, the pending execution is forcing a confrontation with a discomforting fact for one of the country's most liberal regions. It would be the first time in more than 40 years that an inmate has been put to death north or east of Pennsylvania.

The death penalty does not exist in many states in the Northeast, a region that has had its share of notorious killers: from David Berkowitz, the New York City serial killer of the 1970's known as the Son of Sam, to Charles Cullen, the nurse who has confessed to poisoning at least 23 people in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. But the last time an inmate was executed in the Northeast was in 1963, when New York electrocuted two men and New Jersey electrocuted one.

Within New England in particular, the death penalty can seem like a relic. Connecticut, which has eight people on death row, has not executed anyone since 1960. New Hampshire, the only other New England state that has capital punishment, has not executed anyone since 1939; death row there is empty. The last man executed in Rhode Island, the murderer John Gordon, was hanged in 1845.

"I have always thought of New England as the last death-free zone in the United States," said Michael A. Mello, a former capital defense lawyer in Florida, Texas and other states and now a professor at Vermont Law School.

There have been 59 executions in the country so far this year, 85 percent of them in the South, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-death penalty group.

The looming execution date for Mr. Ross, 45, is just beginning to renew controversy over the death penalty here, where the notion of a state execution can still evoke images of 17th-century accusations of witchcraft and piracy and the public hangings employed as punishment.

Adding ambiguity, Mr. Ross, who has twice appealed his sentences and delayed his execution, now says that further challenges would be futile.

Just as his crimes shocked rural eastern Connecticut two decades ago, his decision to forgo his final appeal option is unsettling, said Michael P. Lawlor, a Democrat from East Haven who is co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the Connecticut General Assembly.

"One of the great ironies of this whole thing," Mr. Lawlor said, "is that if he gets executed in January, the only reason it's going to happen is because he wants it to happen."

Neither judges nor most politicians in the Northeast are pushing to speed executions.

In New York, the state's highest court declared in June that the state's death penalty law was unconstitutional, and lawmakers have been reluctant so far to try to revise and restore it. In New Jersey, the state's highest court in February effectively halted executions, ordering the state to change its procedures for carrying them out. In Massachusetts, which has not executed an inmate since 1947 and banned the death penalty in 1984, Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, has pushed for a new state death penalty measure but the Democratic Legislature has not passed it. Last year, however, a death sentence was imposed in a federal trial in Boston. Gary Sampson, the defendant in that case, killed two men who picked him up separately while he hitchhiked in July 2001. Mr. Sampson was charged under a federal law that allows capital punishment when a killing is committed during a carjacking.

In Mr. Ross's case, even as activists and lawyers opposed to the death penalty try to find a way to stay or delay the execution, some experts - including some opposed to the death penalty - believe that Mr. Ross will die as scheduled, at the Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers, near the Massachusetts line.

"I think this execution is going to happen," said Professor Mello, "because he has the right to determine his own destiny. Because lawyers can come up with clever reasons and arguments, but ultimately, Ross has the law on his side."

Opponents of the death penalty are planning a public awareness campaign in the coming weeks, and say that religious leaders will speak out against the execution. Some death penalty experts, like Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, say that Connecticut residents may not even know that capital punishment is an option here.

"I think as people realize this is the first in the area in many, many years,'' he said, "it will wake people up to the fact that, yes, we do have the death penalty in some of these states."

But even as the case generates new interest and new protests, some people who have been close to it for two decades say they have already waited too long for Mr. Ross to die.

"This guy is a poster boy for the death penalty," said Michael Malchik, the former Connecticut State Police detective who arrested Mr. Ross in 1984, after the body of his last victim was found hidden inside a stone wall bordering a field. "He deserves no sympathy from anyone. I think the problem is that the people who are against it have never seen the other side of it. They've never smelled it, looked at it, felt the weight of a dead body in a body bag."

The depravity of Mr. Ross's crimes, the number of them, as well as his apparent willingness to enter the execution chamber, complicate the efforts of death penalty opponents seeking a platform to repeal the state's capital punishment law.

"We have it on pretty good word from the powers that be that nobody's going to touch this," said Robert Nave, director of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty. "Of all the people up on death row, without a doubt the most infamous is Michael Ross."

Connecticut's governor, M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, supports the death penalty. Dennis Schain, a spokesman for Mrs. Rell, said her powers were limited to granting a temporary reprieve. Asked whether Mrs. Rell would consider such a reprieve, Mr. Schain said, "That depends on whether or not the Legislature has an interest in changing the law, and to date there's been no discussion of this."

After graduating from Cornell, in upstate New York, Mr. Ross moved to Jewett City, north of Norwich, Conn., and became a life insurance salesman for Prudential. He had grown up on his parents' egg farm in Brooklyn, Conn., a tiny spot in the state's rural northeast. Mr. Malchik, the former detective, said Mr. Ross told him that as a boy he had to strangle under-producing chickens on the farm.

"He said, 'You know, strangling someone is not as easy as it looks on TV,' " Mr. Malchik recalled. " 'I had to reapply my grip to finish them off.' "

Mr. Ross confessed to eight murders, six cases in Connecticut and two in New York, and he was sentenced to death for four of them. In the death penalty cases, he raped three of the victims before strangling them. In one case, he raped and strangled a 14-year-old girl while her 14-year-old friend, whom Mr. Ross had bound, was present. He then strangled the second girl.

Mr. Malchik said Mr. Ross had told him he expected to be caught eventually. Mr. Malchik recalled how he and his partner drove the "casual, cooperative" Mr. Ross to the crime scenes to have him explain what happened.

"We have dozens and dozens of pictures of him just pointing to different spots where he did different things to different women," Mr. Malchik said. "He wasn't handcuffed or anything. We just took him around."

Mr. Ross fought his death sentence twice, first winning a retrial of the sentencing phase only to be sentenced to death a second time, in 2000. He appealed the second death sentence to the State Supreme Court and lost earlier this year.

At one point in the 1990's, Mr. Ross tried to enter an agreement with the state to be executed, saying then what he says now, that he did not want to cause more pain for the families of his victims. A judge rejected the agreement.

"He really, truly and sincerely, and this is what the public I don't think buys, he doesn't want to put the families through any more of this," said T. R. Paulding, a lawyer who represents Mr. Ross, though not as his defense attorney.

Mr. Malchik, for one, does not believe him.

"First of all, it's been 20 years," he said. "Why now, after 20 years? What did he do, wake up a couple of months ago and say, 'I think I want to do away with my appeals'? I think he's manipulative. He loves publicity."

Mr. Paulding stressed that while Mr. Ross opposes execution, he feels that further appeals, even to the United States Supreme Court, would not overturn his sentence. "He doesn't think there's any way he'll get out without death," Mr. Paulding said.

Mr. Ross professes discovery of a deep Christian faith since his arrest and has posted essays on the subject on the Internet. He takes a medication, Depo-Lupron; Mr. Paulding said the drug reduced the symptoms of sexual sadism, a psychiatric disorder that some think is rooted in childhood trauma, and a condition that Mr. Ross has long claimed caused his criminal behavior.

"In his words, it kind of clears the demons or monsters out of his head," Mr. Paulding said. "You know, if you and I were sitting in a room having coffee with him, we'd think he was just a normal guy. Of course, a lot of people would disagree with that.''

 
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