If convicted serial killer Michael Ross heads to the execution chamber Jan. 26 as expected, he goes according to his own wishes and those of the vast majority of Connecticut citizens. But in what are likely to be the last few days of Ross’ life, the hope of commuting his death sentence has brought a sense of shared purpose to some members of the Yale and New Haven community.
Ross, 45, is slated to die by lethal injection just past 2 a.m. on Jan. 26, becoming the first man executed by the state of Connecticut in the past 45 years. Before he was sentenced to death in 1987, Ross killed eight women in Connecticut and New York, raping some of his victims.
After nearly 20 years on death row, Ross has chosen to forego his right to further appeals and proceed with the execution. The decision has triggered an upsurge of anti-death penalty sentiment from some religious and secular groups across the state, including many at Yale.
“If you’re sitting on death row 20 years just awaiting your death, after a while the depression will lead you to want to get it over with,” said Ikponmwosa Ekunwe ’06, a member of the Student Legal Action Movement, a Yale group devoted to reforming the American prison system. “But that doesn’t mean that the state should sanction your death.”
Several student members of SLAM are also members of the New Haven chapter of prison-abolition group Critical Resistance, which has already participated in protests against Ross’ execution, Ekunwe said.
Many others, including Gov. Jodi Rell, support Ross’ execution, in part because Ross himself admitted to the murders. In a statement made in December, Rell said she will not grant Ross a reprieve.
“Let me be clear about this: I have no sympathy for Michael Ross,” Rell’s statement read. “And as I weighed my decision I thought of the young, vibrant girls who died brutal deaths at the hands of Michael Ross.”
A Quinnipiac University poll taken in the wake of Gov. Rell’s statement found that 70 percent of Connecticut voters are in favor of Ross’ execution.
Although both SLAM and Critical Resistance oppose the death penalty in general, Ross’ case has brought new complications to their position. Chief among these is the question of competence.
Ross, a graduate of Cornell University, has claimed he wants to forego his right to further appeals out of kindness to the families of the women he killed. Members of his family and his original legal defense team, however, are protesting that Ross is mentally ill, and thus incompetent to make his own legal decisions and to face execution. Although the state Supreme Court found Ross competent Jan. 14, Connecticut’s Division of Public Defenders filed suit with the state Supreme Court on Tuesday, requesting a stay of execution.
A lawyer representing Ross’ father has stated that his client intends to file a federal suit questioning whether executing Ross before the Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of the state’s death penalty would violate his father’s civil rights.
New Haven resident Shelton Tucker, a member of Critical Resistance, said he feels that Ross’ execution will be tantamount to state-assisted suicide.
“I know he’s come forward and said that he’s competent and he wants to spare the families any pain, but basically I think he’s just been worn down by the conditions on death row,” Tucker said. “If he were given life without parole, I don’t think he would want to die. … I don’t see why anyone would want to continue, knowing they had nowhere else to go than the grave.”
The upcoming execution has also galvanized religious anti-death penalty groups. On Jan. 9, Henry Mansell, the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Hartford, in conjunction with the other Roman Catholic bishops of Connecticut, sent a letter to all parishes under their jurisdiction urging Catholics to sign a petition to abolish the death penalty. The letter does not mention Ross by name, but does speak of the increased intensity of the death penalty debate as Connecticut faces “the possibility of our first execution in forty-five years.”
This letter prompted several Yale Catholics, including Giovanni Zinn ’05, co-chair of the Undergraduate Council of St. Thomas More Chapel, to sign the petition and help gather more signatures. Zinn said he feels that although Ross’ case may have prompted the bishops’ letter, the real issue at hand is the concept of execution as a legally sanctioned punishment.
“It is the teaching of the Catholic Church that life has to be protected at all stages, and we believe that the death penalty does not provide any good for society,” Zinn said. “Instead [the death penalty is] repaying the loss of one life by the killing of another life, and we believe that only God has the right to take a life, and we believe it is the duty of humans not to take a life.”
Fr. Robert Belion, the chaplain at St. Thomas More, emphasized the value the Catholic Church places on life, and the consequences that position has for the Church’s stance on correctional issues.
“In this country, where you can keep people in prison without parole, that is desirable, because even the life of a person who has committed a terrible crime is not without value,” Belion said.
If the execution proceeds next Wednesday, Critical Resistance plans to hold candlelight vigils in various locations on Jan. 25 and 26, joining other state and national groups in protest.