Sunday, December 12, 2004

Michael Ross, The Death Penalty and Connecticut's Press

In a recent column in the Journal Inquirer following Governor Jodi Rell's public announcement that she would not reprieve Michael Ross' death sentence, the paper's editorial editor, Keith Burris, ventured far out when he wrote that Connecticut had no standing in executing Ross, a murderer who strangled eight women, raping most of them.

"I would not blame the loved ones of any of Michael Ross' victims for killing him, and I would not vote to convict any parent of any one of his victims for doing so," Burris wrote.

"Call it an eye for an eye or a crime of passion. Ross' victims and family have standing.

"I also think Ross is entitled to take his own life. (Go for it Mike.)

"But I do not see how the state does. And I do not see how the state upholds justice if the state kills him."

There is a great deal of confusion here, particularly since Burris wrote in the same column that he agreed with Cardinal Bernardin's notion that the Catholic Church should be "life affirming."

"I agree," Burris wrote, "with the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago. He wrote and spoke of a seamless garment affirming life: Anti-war, anti-death penalty, and anti abortion."

In what sense is it "life affirming" to hold blameless vengeful family members of victims who murder, even if their cause is understandable?

It would render the seamless garment very bloody indeed if the entire culture, along with Burris, would not blame family members of victims "who have standing" when they seek revenge; for, of course, if the society could not blame men for such acts of revenge, neither should it prosecute them.

It is because Ross was not blameless that he was prosecuted and found guilty.

It has become far too easy for those who oppose capital punishment to argue that there is no distinction between murder, revenge and justice. According to this view, the state, in executing Ross, has descended to "state sanctioned murder."

Rell, Burris writes, "believes in retribution." Addressing the media once she had refused to reprieve Ross, Rell said, "This (the execution of Ross) may not deter other killers, but there is a point at which the community must say -- ENOUGH. We cannot let this stand without objection and correction by civil society. We cannot tolerate your crime, or you among us."

Burris found this mode of reasoning "convincing" but adds, "a similar logic justified lynching not so many years ago."

This is specious reasoning, because it ignores reality. In fact and in truth, Ross' path to execution was very far removed from a lynching, as anyone who understands the difference between just retribution and vengeance would attest. A lynch mob does not observe the niceties of justice afforded Ross. And Ross' crimes were very much more like vengeance than Ross' elaborate ( some would say Byzantine) judicial proceedings.

Though reporters regularly insert prior information into new stories as a matter of course, Ross' litigatory record is not included in recent stories, and not because the reader may be familiar with the details; assuredly he is not.

An accurate recitation of the record simply would take up too much space. The years of litigation were freighted with details not reported in recent stories: first a trial during which Ross was found guilty of having murdered four women; then a separate death penalty hearing during which a jury sentenced him to death; then an automatic review by Connecticut's Supreme Court; then an appellate court's decision that the hearing should be re-held; then yet another hearing by a separate jury in which new information was admitted, followed by yet another death sentence -- then more appeals.

Ross confessed to murdering eight women but was tried only for four murders.

Ross had not exhausted his appeals when recently he decided to let justice take its course, at which point the serial killer was reported in many news stories as having "volunteered" to be put to death.

Ross himself does not view it this way.

"I am asking you not to exercise your executive power to grant the temporary reprieve," Ross wrote in a letter to Rell. "First, and most importantly, it is not fair to the families of my victims, who have been waiting for over 20 years (my italics) for justice to be carried out in this case." If Ross is credible, he has trying to prevent appeals for several years because he does not wish to prologue the agony of the families of his victims.

Others -- notably, public defenders that Ross had discharged because they refused to accede to his wish that no further appeals should be filed; "whole garment" journalists who, for some odd reason, do not object strongly or often to late term abortion, disallowed both by the First Estate and Row v Wade; putative Catholic legislators who will follow their church only where they wish to go; critics of Rell too cowardly to take a clear position on the matter and state for the record that they oppose the death penalty for Ross, a failing for which Burris may plead not guilty; thoughtless sentimentalists; and the Catholic Church, which has taken a principled position against the death penalty -- have been responsible in prolonging the agony of, to mention but one name, Edwin Shelley, the father of one of Ross' 14 year-old-victims.

It has been 20 years since Shelley felt the hair rise on the nape of his neck when he saw his daughter's corpse.

"I last saw my daughter Leslie," Shelley wrote in a letter to Rell prior to her announcement that she would not grant a reprieve to Ross, "on Easter Sunday of 1984, and since learning of her death, I have tried to experience the horror and fear she must have felt as her friend April was led away raped and murdered. I cannot begin to feel the feelings of helplessness as she lay tied in the back seat of his car or her fear when he came to get her; perhaps you may, I don't know.

"But as he took her from his car and knelt on her back to cover up the act of rape and murder perpetrated on her friend April, he had the nerve to tell her he was sorry.

"I am hoping and praying that you will rethink your thinking on a stay of execution of Michael Ross."

Having thought through the matter very deliberatly, Rell decided not to intervene. Ross' former public defenders have filed a petition with the court, which should -- Though one can never be quite sure that appellate court justices will see their duty and do it, as Rell has -- be denied, if only on the grounds that discharged attorneys have no standing before the court. And Michael Lawlor, on the legislature's Judicial Committee, wants yet another debate on the issue of capital punishment. The anti death-penalty proponents attempted unsuccessfully to persuade Rell to grant a reprieve so that the issue may be debated yet again in the legislature.

Whether anyone in Connecticut's media will be guided by the pleas of Ross or Shelly is, at this point, very much an open question.
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