Probably no one outside his family will cry any tears over Ronell Wilson’s fate. After killing two undercover police officers in a robbery that netted $120, Wilson was sentenced to death in a federal trial in 2006. Today, a federal appeals court overturned Wilson’s death sentence and sent the case back to district court. Federal prosecutors may now appeal the decision to a yet higher federal court, or prepare to repeat the sentencing phase of Wilson’s trial at considerable taxpayer expense.
The case has been unusual for a couple of reasons. After New York’s death penalty statute was struck down by the Court of Appeals in 2004, Staten Island prosecutors handed the case over to federal prosecutors so that Wilson could still face the death penalty in federal court. The US Justice Department under Attorney General John Ashcroft – known for his enthusiastic support of the death penalty – was only too happy to oblige.
Wilson was sentenced to death by a jury in the southern district of New York, and so became the first person sentenced to death by a federal jury in New York in more than fifty years – breaking a long string of prosecutorial futility in which federal prosecutors had sought and failed to secure death sentences in dozens of cases tried in New York.
While some still defend the death penalty in principle, it is becoming increasingly awkward to defend the death penalty as public policy. Innocent people have been sentenced to death and in some cases executed. A death penalty case costs millions of dollars more than lifetime incarceration. The death penalty has never been applied consistently and evenly. It has not been shown to reduce crime, with 86% of criminologists reporting that they do not believe it functions as a deterrent.
Our state’s failed experiment with the death penalty makes clear that the death penalty simply doesn’t work. All the death penalty does is waste energy and dollars. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent trying, New York State has not executed anyone in 47 years.
The 2nd Circuit ruling in US v. Wilson is available in Adobe .pdf format.
"U.S. Court Strikes Down Death Sentence for Killer of Two New York Officers," is the title of the New York Times coverage written by Manny Fernandez and A.G. Sulzberger.
An appeals court struck down the first successful federal capital-punishment prosecution in New York State in more than 50 years on Wednesday, overturning the death sentence given to a Staten Island man who was convicted of killing two undercover New York City police detectives in 2003.
The man, Ronell Wilson, now 28, was sentenced by a federal jury in January 2007 to die by lethal injection for shooting each of the detectives in the back of the head in a car on a dead-end street on Staten Island. The detectives, James V. Nemorin and Rodney J. Andrews, had been posing as gun buyers.
A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned the death sentence, asserting in a 2-to-1 ruling that federal prosecutors had violated Mr. Wilson’s constitutional rights.
The judges ruled that Mr. Wilson’s conviction still stands, but they essentially ordered a new hearing to determine if he should receive the death penalty. The United States attorney’s office could appeal the ruling to the entire Second Circuit or to the Supreme Court. If prosecutors choose not to appeal, the case will go back to Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis of Federal District Court in Brooklyn for a penalty phase hearing before a new jury.
Another option would involve withdrawing their notice to seek the death penalty, in which case Mr. Wilson would be automatically sentenced to life in prison.
The Court of Appeals’ ruling centered on two arguments that prosecutors made to the jury about Mr. Wilson’s remorse and acceptance of responsibility for the killings during the penalty phase of his trial. The judges noted that prosecutors used Mr. Wilson’s demand for a trial and his failure to plead guilty as evidence that he lacked remorse and refused to accept responsibility. The judges said prosecutors had argued to the jury that Mr. Wilson’s statement of remorse should be discredited because he failed to testify.
The Wall Street Journal reports, "Death Penalty Scrapped in the Killing of Two Police Officers," by David Benoit and Sean. Gardiner.
A federal appeals court overturned the death sentence of a man convicted of killing two undercover police officers in 2003, the first federal death penalty in New York in more than 50 years.
Ronell Wilson, 28 years old, was convicted in 2007 of the murder of Detectives James Nemorin, 36, and Rodney Andrews, 34, who were shot and dumped in the street after an undercover operation in which they attempted to buy a Tec-9 submachine gun in March 2003.
The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Mr. Wilson's rights were violated when prosecutors told the jury they should sentence him to death partly because he had refused to testify or admit his guilt. The court sent the case back to the district court for re-sentencing, saying, "These constitutional violations were not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt."
The decision overwhelmed the families of the slain New York Police Department officers and outraged law-enforcement officials across the city.