Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Witness Against The Prosecution: The Ross Case

The execution of serial killer Michael Ross was stopped in its tracks several weeks ago by the unorthodox intervention of U. S. District Court Judge Robert Chatigny.

Those tracks are miles long. Both Ross and his living victims, the family members of the nine women he murdered, have endured a long trial, an automatic review by Connecticut’s Supreme Court, a penalty hearing at which Ross was sentenced to death, an appellate decision that occasioned a second death penalty hearing, and a second sentencing hearing during which new evidence was considered by a second jury that sentenced Ross to death a second time.

This process of seemingly endless litigation finally was interrupted by Ross himself. Professing a concern for the family members of his victims, Ross discharged his public defenders and engaged a new lawyer, T. R. Paulding, to represent his interests. Ross had decided to forgo any further appeals and accept his sentence.

In this effort, Ross was opposed by his former public defenders, his father and a religious organization. Further court actions followed, but all these interventions were rejected by various courts – including Connecticut’s Supreme Court -- on the grounds that those bringing the actions had no standing to do so.

Finally, it seemed that Ross was going to walk the walk.

But at least one judge did not know when to take “no” for an answer. Hours before Ross was to be executed, Chatigny intervened. By threatening Paulding with the loss of his law license in a phone conference that included parties rebuffed by the courts, Chatigny was able to prevail upon Paulding to postpone Ross’ execution. Yet another hearing was scheduled.

At the new hearing, Paulding will represent Ross’ interests, and society lawyer James Wade will represent the interests of…

That’s the problem; it’s not exactly certain whose interests Wade will be representing. Let’s say he will be representing the interests of organized death penalty opponents, some of whom are legislators who have now managed to propose to the House a bill that will abolish the death penalty and do for Ross what several Connecticut courts have been unable to do: spare the serial killer his just punishment.

One of Ross’ early victims, Vivian Dobson, was called before a House committee to testify in favor of the abolition of the death penalty.

Dobson was able to escape Ross early on in his career as a mass murderer because she had been packing a knife. Only a few feet from her home, she was accosted by Ross and dragged into the bushes, where he had intended to rape and strangle her. But Ross had not yet perfected his craft and ran into some unforeseen difficulties. When Dobson pressed her knife to his chest, he challenged her.

“Go’head,” he said.

Recently Dobson told a columnist, "All I had to do was just shove it right into his chest. That's all I had to do. And I didn't do it. I didn't do it and those other girls died."

This was a terrible burden to have carried all these years. Dobson confessed to the columnist that she could not move out of her private nightmare unless she forgave Ross. But it is unclear why her forgiveness should take the form of agitating against the death penalty? Surely she does not wish to forgive Ross for failing to kill her, and it is not possible for her to forgive Ross for killing other women.

The family members of other victims prevailed on Dobson to testify against Ross, and she did – which took a great deal of courage. After exhaustive trials and hearings, Ross finally is facing his just punishment, the knife now pointed at his chest. And Ross clearly is challenging the state: “Go head.” Dobson told the committee she did not want to accept responsibility for Ross' execution.

When Dobson testified against Ross at his trial, she thought justice would come quickly. She would testify; he would be found guilty; he would be sentenced to death, and execution would follow in a reasonable course of time. But it has taken much too long.

"The parents are dwindling away,” Ms. Dobson told the columnist. “People who wanted this so bad are dead. And Ross sits there, waiting.” But surely Ross will be sitting there waiting a much longer time if the death penalty abolitionists prevail and he is spared his punishment.

Dobson seems to be caught in a crippling repetition: Her House testimony was expected to help to abolish the death penalty. After debate on the issue, the House voted along party lines to defeat the measure by an 89-60 margin. Republicans voted 48-4 against repeal of the death penalty, while the Democrat vote was 56-41 for abolition. Had the measure passed, it would have been the second time Dobson's actions had spared Ross.

The use that is being made of Dobson by death penalty opponents may rightfully be questioned. Forgiveness is not incompatible with justice. Ross richly deserves the death penalty, and his living victims – the family members of the women he brutally killed, who have not slipped away – deserve release from their long ordeal.
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