In New Haven’s first state capital punishment case since the state reinstituted the death penalty in 1973, convicted triple murderer Jonathan Mills escaped the death penalty — and a group of students at Yale Law School could not have been happier.
Students in law professor Stephen Bright’s death penalty clinics have aided the defense since Mills was arrested for the murders four years ago. After six days of deliberation, a 12-member jury unanimously spared Mills, 31, the death penalty Oct. 18 after convicting him of stabbing a Guilford woman and her two young children to death.
The Superior Court jury found that certain mitigating circumstances in Mills’s life, such as his drug use, troubled family life and remorse outweighed what jurors considered to be a horrific crime.
Bright, whose students aided public defender Barry Butler of the state’s capital defense unit and New Haven public defender Thomas Ullmann during the trial, said he was pleased by the jury’s decision.
In the 10 years that he has taught a death penalty class, Bright has run the death penalty clinic nearly half of that time, and said he has received generally positive feedback from all parties involved.
“Connecticut has few enough capital defense lawyers, those that it has are some of the best in the country, so it’s very valuable for the students to work with them,” Bright said. “The Yale Law School is one of the best in the country, so it is beneficial for the lawyers too.”
Adam Hollander LAW ’06 and Mollie Lee LAW ’06 were the only students involved in the case this year, but over the clinic’s four-year involvement in the Mills case, a total of eight students have assisted the defense.
“I knew this was an area of law that I was interested in and working on it more closely was an incredible experience,” Hollander said. “It felt a lot more real than other work I’ve done.”
Hollander added that watching the case play out in the courtroom was a good learning experience.
“Barry and Tom are both great lawyers and I got to watch their interactions with the jury and also the reaction of Mills,” Hollander said.
Not only did the defense attorneys find the law students helpful, but Mills did as well, Butler said.
“Jon Mills liked and trusted those students, and that is no small deal,” Butler said.
Mills was convicted last month on all 15 counts in the stabbing homicides of Katherine Kleinkauf, 43, of Guilford, her six-year-old daughter Rachel Crum and four-year-old son Kyle Redway. Mills confessed to stabbing Kleinkauf 46 times and the children six times each. In his confession, Mills said he had intended to steal Kleinkauf’s ATM card and use her money to buy drugs.
State’s Attorney Michael Dearington and Senior Assistant State’s Attorney David Strollo did not return requests for comment.
Having never worked on a death penalty trial prior to Mills’ case, Ullmann took courses on the death penalty to prepare for the trial. He said that although the experience was instructive, it was also exhausting.
“Defense attorneys are not trained to save people’s lives — that is in the medical field,” Ullmann said.
Since he escaped the death penalty, Mills will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole. His formal sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 21. In addition, he currently awaits sentencing for the murder of Mindy Elizabeth Leigh, 20. Ullmann and Butler will represent Mills at this trial as well.