On Jan 29, those who were to witness the death by lethal injection of serial killer Michael Ross were told that the execution of Ross had been postponed due to “a potential conflict of interest.” The nature of the conflict of interest was not described, but it seemed to have something to do with Chief U.S. District Judge Robert Chatigny's hissy fit.
A day earlier, Ross’ former public defenders, understandably dejected by a U.S. Supreme Court’s order lifting a stay of execution earlier imposed by Chief U.S. District Judge Robert Chatigny, told Connecticut’s news media that they had exhausted their legal resources.
Chatigny had issued two stays of execution that in effect set aside previous decisions made by Judge Christopher Droney, Chatigny’s peer on the court, and Connecticut’s Supreme Court. Chatigny’s ruling, had it passed muster with the U.S. Supreme Court, would have required a new hearing during which new testimony concerning Ross’ mental impairment would have been introduced by psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Grassian, who was prepared to testify that prolonged internment on death row was mentally debilitating.
In vacating Chatigny’s stay, the U.S. Supreme Court in effect denied that such testimony was necessary to determine the issue of Ross’ competence to waive further appeals in his case. All the legal resources available to Ross’ former public defenders had been explored and found wanting.
But unexplored resources soon surfaced in the person of Judge Chatigny, who explicitly threatened – there is no other word for it -- Ross’ legal counsel with disbarment if, after Ross’ execution, it should be determined that Ross had not been competent to waive further appeals.
“I’ll have your law license,” Chatigny told Ross’ lawyer, T. R. Paulding, should a future investigation show that prison officials had mistreated Ross or other prisoners. “What you are doing is terribly, terribly wrong,” said Chatigny moments before Ross’ scheduled execution during a phone conference that included numerous defense lawyers that three courts had previously determined had no standing to represent Ross’ interests.
Information had been supplied to Chatigny by attorney Huber Santos that former corrections deputy commissioner John Tokarz was convinced Ross was acting from despair because of the harsh conditions in which he lived. Chatigny had toured death row while sitting on a different case and found living condition there to be “deeply disturbing,” a point the judge made in a hearing earlier in the week.
“I see this happening,” judge Chatigny said to Paulding during his conference call, “and I can’t live with it myself, which is why I’m on the phone right now. It’s wrong. What you’re doing is wrong.”
Chatigny told Paulding he was well read on the psychiatric effects of prison isolation, and he questioned whether Paulding had given serious consideration to Grassian’s theory that Ross’ prolonged stay on Connecticut’s death row made his client desperate to die. Revisiting issues decided previously at trial, Chatigny asserted that Ross’ sexual sadism and other mental illnesses, as well as Ross’ previous unsuccessful attempts to kill himself, raised questions that Ross may be suicidal.
“You’ve put yourself in a pretty bad place, Mr. Paulding,” said Chatigny, “and I would urge you to say, Michael, I can bring you in off the limb hat we’re both out on. I can bring you in.”
But Chatigny himself must be sensible that he is crawling far out on a perilous limb, because the judge's invitation to Paulding was threatening and highly unorthodox. The judge was inviting Paulding to misrepresent his client’s interests on the chance that future investigations might or might not show that Ross was incompetent – after Ross'competence had been asserted and affirmed directly by presentations in numerous other judicial proceedings.
Assuming Grassian’s unproved theories to be true, the practical effect of a finding that solitary confinement for extended periods of time is by itself mentally debilitating would require Connecticut to abandon the imposition of the death penalty in all cases in which a prisoner was confined in solitary longer than Ross. It would also require wardens to disburse felons awaiting capital punishment into the general prison population, a hazardous solution in the case of child killers like Ross. And it might require Connecticut to provide private continuing psychological care to anyone on death row. This turn of events no doubt would satisfy psychiatrists, anti-death penalty proponents and Judge Chatigny, but it is questionable whether it would be necessary, just or cost effective.
The sentiments expressed by Judge Chatigny during his pummeling of attorney Paulding are not those of a judge who is prepared to weigh competing claims in a dispassionate and disinterested manner -- which is why the judge should instantly remove himself from the case. Judge Chatigny is a partisan in the coming battle to abolish the death penalty, and partisans belong in the legislature – not on the bench.