Despite State Ban, Federal Inmate Ronell Wilson Is Sent to Death Row

In July, a U.S. District Court jury in New York sentenced Ronell Wilson to death for murdering two undercover cops in 2003. It was only the second time in half a century that a federal case in the state resulted in the death penalty.

The first time, six years ago, the defendant was none other than ... Ronell Wilson.

For decades, federal prosecutors here had failed to sway a jury to impose the ultimate punishment. Then up steps Wilson and goes 0 for 2. What changed?

Illustration by Rob Zammarchi

State law, for one thing.

On June 24, 2004, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled the death penalty unconstitutional. That put Richmond County District Attorney Daniel Donovan in a bind—he had already announced that he'd try to put Wilson on death row.

Rather than settle for a life sentence if he won a conviction, Donovan passed Wilson's file to prosecutors in the state's Eastern District, hoping the case would be the one to reverse the U.S. Attorney's losing streak. The feds indicted Wilson under the federal racketeering statute, charging him with murder. Capital punishment, legal under federal law, was back in play.

"When the New York State Court of Appeals struck down the state death penalty statute, there were at least a dozen other cases moving toward capital trial in the state," says attorney Russell Neufeld, who once headed the Legal Aid Society's capital defense team. "Every single other one became a non-capital murder trial, except for Wilson. The only thing that made this one different was that the victims were police officers."

Adds Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti–capital-punishment nonprofit: "This one stood out and had the right elements. Things were in alignment."

Wilson's lawyer at the time, Ephraim Savitt, told the New York Times that the baton pass amounted to "one of the most egregious cases of death penalty forum shopping I've ever experienced."

Of course, Wilson and Savitt appeared to have the odds on their side. The last time federal prosecutors had won a death sentence in New York was 1954. In the two decades preceding Wilson's 2007 trial, jurors in New York had rejected 14 federal pleas for lethal injection. Capital punishment is so uncommon in the state that there's no death row here. (Wilson has been transferred to federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, where he has plenty of company.)

Though most Americans now think of New York as a progressive bastion, the state has a long history on the front lines of inmate executions. It hosted the electric chair's debut in 1890. From 1608 to 1972, New York ranked second only to Virginia in dispatching prisoners.

In 1965, then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller banned the death penalty for all cases except those involving defendants convicted of murdering police officers. In 1984 the state appeals court eliminated the legal grounds for capital punishment altogether.

Consequently, a who's who of New York's most infamous murderers weredestined never to darken death row: serial killer David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz, convicted in 1978. Arthur John Shawcross, the Genesee River Killer, convicted of a dozen murders in the late 1980s. Joel David Rifkin, serial killer of prostitutes, found guilty in 1994.

All got life in prison.

When George Pataki was sworn in as governor in 1995, he reinstated capital punishment, and over the next nine years, state juries sentenced seven defendants to death. But appellate courts reduced each of their punishments. By the time the state's highest court shut down the death penalty for a second time in 2004, there was only one sentence left to vacate.

Federal prosecutors haven't had to contend with sentencing limitations, but it hasn't mattered. They've sought death sentences for mobsters like Vincent Basciano, who was convicted of killing two; hitmen like Tommy Pitera, found guilty of eight murders; and terrorists like the two men behind the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings across East Africa.

Juries have unwaveringly opted for life in prison.

Sometimes U.S. attorneys don't even bother trying. They considered seeking the death penalty for mob boss Joe Massino, who was convicted of killing eight, until he agreed to turn informant. They didn't ask for lethal injection in their case against Kenneth McGriff, a Queens drug kingpin convicted of murder, or John Gotti, the Gambino family crime boss found guilty of five murders.

Ronell Wilson wasn't a mob boss, a drug kingpin, or a terrorist.

He was a Bloods gang member with a robbery conviction on his record, a crack-addict mother who neglected him as a child, and, as a pretrial assessment would reveal, an IQ that barely topped 70.

Detectives Rodney J. Andrews and James V. Nemorin were working undercover for the New York Police Department's Firearms Investigations Unit on Staten Island when Wilson, then 20 years old, and 17-year-old Jesse Jacobus climbed into the backseat of the officers' car on March 10, 2003, ostensibly to sell them some guns.

The sting operation blew up when it turned out Wilson was misrepresenting his intentions, too: He'd come to rob the ersatz arms buyers.

The murders dominated the headlines. Andrews and Nemorin were the first NYPD officers killed in the line of duty since 9/11. They were stars in the department, clean-as-a-whistle cops, family men who'd worked their way through the ranks. Nemorin, a 36-year-old Haitian immigrant, left behind a wife and baby. Neighbors spoke of having seen Andrews, a 34-year-old New York native, playing football in the front yard with his two preteen sons.

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