Friday, January 14, 2005

Michael Ross and His Defenders

Michael Ross’ father says that his son views himself as the director of a play; what is about to happen to him is bathed in unreality.

That’s probably a sound assessment, but Ross’ attitude toward his death need not be viewed as an indication of insanity or incompetence. Shakespeare says we are all bit players, strutting our hour upon the stage. We all deal with unknown circumstances by imagining them. Our imaginations are our private theaters where we view and test the possibilities that life presents to us.

Neither should Ross’ sense of frustration be viewed as unreasonable. However successful Ross’ discharged public defenders have been in postponing the inevitable, the end of the play Ross is supposedly directing will arrive in due course. Knowing this, it is not at all unreasonable that Ross, both the principal protagonist of the piece and its putative director, has become weary with his appeals process.

Ross has said that one of his motivations in refusing further appeals is to bring to an end the suffering of his victim’s family members, and some have wondered whether he playing with our heads. Public defenders who suggested during Ross’ trial that he had been the victim of a psychological disorder later insisted that Ross was perfectly capable of assisting in his defense – so long as Ross allowed them a long tether. When he brought his appeals to a close by firing his defense team and hiring a lawyer who would permit him to spurn further appeals, Ross was deemed incompetent by his former public defenders.

No one can know for certain whether Ross is manipulating his present defense attorney, a reputable psychiatrist who found him competent after an examination, or the judge who ruled that Ross’ former attorneys did not have standing to file a suit in the case.

God alone – this may come as a surprise to psychiatrists – knows the reasons of the heart. Some reports say Ross has returned to his faith, Roman Catholicism. His decision to accept the verdicts of three separate courts may be an indication of repentance – or not. But there is little doubt that his decision to forgo appeals was formed long ago, when his public defenders were still representing his interests.

Why is Ross’ version of events so easily discounted?

Because, the public defenders and a few psychiatrists say, Ross is suffering from a clinical depression caused by the deadly Damoclean sword hanging over his head. The public defenders, of course, are interested parties. So, for that matter, is Ross. The disinterested parties are the three juries that found Ross sane and guilty of four capital felony murders.

Organized anti-death penalty proponents, Ross’ former public defenders and some Catholic clerics have argued that the state – which is to say, all of us -- is motivated by vengeance, and vengeance belongs to the Lord.

One expects serious clerics, lawyers and political commentators to understand the difference between retributive justice and vengeance. It is always possible to argue that a specific jury decision is unjust, but juries generally are dispassionate, disinterested and reasonable, unlike some family members of Ross’ victims, none of whom sat on the juries that convicted him. No one, least of all Ross himself, seriously contends that Ross is innocent of the murders for which he was tried and found guilty, theories that he was incapacitated by mental illness at the time he committed the murders having been considered and rejected by three juries.

Death penalty abolitionists contend that the legal fandango is not about Ross; the death penalty should be abolished because it is inherently unjust. Most recently, Connecticut’s defense attorneys called a press conference and announced -- big surprise -- their opposition to the death penalty. The death penalty is unjust, the defense attorneys agreed, because it is not uniformly applied, an argument that might prove useful the next time any citizen of the state wishes to protest a speeding ticket.

After January 26, the scheduled date of Ross’ execution, the death penalty will have been employed twice in 45 years. Joseph “Mad Dog” Taborsky, a serial killer like Ross, was executed in 1960. So then, here is the relevant figure: In nearly half a century, the number of innocent people executed in Connecticut is 0.

Only a numerological magician could use that figure to argue that the death penalty in Connecticut is inherently unjust.

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