In the long and complicated debate over whether Connecticut should execute serial killer Michael Ross, we see one very simple fact: Ross deserves to die. Ross’ crimes are ghastly — he killed eight young women, raping several of them — and there is no doubt as to his guilt. If, as expected, Ross becomes the first man executed in New England in 45 years next week, his death will come without opposition from most Connecticut leaders, the large majority of the state’s residents or Ross himself.
Yet while we are utterly horrified at the crimes Michael Ross has committed — and will feel no sadness at his death — we do not believe that he should be executed next Wednesday. For some of us, the death penalty is morally unjustifiable no matter the circumstances. But even for many of us who believe capital punishment is sometimes warranted, we contend that Ross’ execution next week will only extend a death penalty system that is badly flawed.
The brutality of Michael Ross’ crimes, and his desire to die, have allowed Connecticut’s leaders to brush aside deep concerns about how the death penalty is administered in America. The problems with the death penalty in many states where its use is most frequent — the possibility of killing an innocent man, or unequal sentencing of criminals on the basis of race or income — do not apply for Ross, who is white and has admitted his crimes. But the circumstances surrounding Ross’ execution, and in particular, his stated desire to go forward with the execution, still raise troubling questions.
Because Connecticut law allows death-row inmates to appeal their sentences almost indefinitely, Ross’ historic execution will move forward only because Ross wants it to do so. Ross’ decision to end his appeals process and instead state his wish to die has naturally put his competence to make such a choice into doubt: Is it ever sane for a man to actively seek his own death? Beyond the issue of Ross’ sanity, though, the fact that Ross himself is the driving factor in determining whether he will die means that his case will do virtually nothing to clarify the role of capital punishment in Connecticut.
The key question that Connecticut needs to ask, and the one that has been skirted by the state’s leaders, is whether executing Ross serves any of the extraordinary purposes that could possibly justify a state’s willingness to actively take a human life. The idea that capital punishment deters wrongdoing has long appeared questionable at best, and the experience of the New England states does little to suggest the death penalty is necessary to stop violent crime. And if the death penalty is to be upheld instead for the sake of reserving the most serious punishments for the most despicable acts, or for exacting moral retribution on behalf of the victims, then the fact that Ross’ execution accords with his own desires is troubling. For any argument that can be made in favor of the death penalty, Ross’ situation poses a grave challenge.
Michael Ross’ execution, if it proceeds, may prove to be an anomaly in Connecticut history or a sign of changes to come in the state’s legal system. Either way, his death will leave the question of when — and whether — the state is able to justify the ultimate punishment woefully unanswered.