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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?
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.
Donovan, who represented the city's most politically conservative borough, made no secret of his desire to make Wilson pay the ultimate price, even if it meant letting his federal counterparts try the case.
Jacobus, who was convicted of second-degree murder, testified that Wilson shot Andrews seconds after demanding that his victims "Give it up!" Wilson then shot Nemorin, Jacobus said, after the officer begged for his life. Wilson's lawyers claimed he hadn't known the men he was robbing were cops.
Prosecutors contended that Wilson's criminal history suggested he'd remain a danger to society even while in prison, that he knew his victims were working undercover, and that the cold-blooded nature of his crime merited the severest penalty. They asserted that the defendant had shown no remorse. After nine hours of deliberation, the jurors agreed that death was the appropriate punishment.
The U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the sentence. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jack Smith, the judges found, had violated Wilson's Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights when he told the jury in his closing statement that the defendant's decisions to plead not guilty and not to take the stand demonstrated a lack of remorse.
The judge who presided over the retrial of Wilson's sentencing, Nicholas G. Garaufis, has been known to question the cost-benefit balance of capital punishment cases.
"It's important for the Justice Department to examine the use of the very limited resources of the United States Attorney's office and of the court in pursuing the death penalty," Garaufis wrote in a 2008 letter that spurred then-U.S. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey to drop a death penalty undertaking in the case of convicted murderer Gerard Price.
But U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder authorized prosecutors to make another run at Wilson.
"It is the only case I know in which the federal government has started seeking out the death penalty, got a death verdict, had that death verdict later reversed on appeal, then had to go through the expense of the sentencing phase all over again and got another death verdict," says Ronald Tabak, chair of the American Bar Association's death penalty committee.
The second time around, jurors heard that Wilson had stuck out his tongue at his victims' families after the jury announced its verdict at his original trial. Prosecutors also had 10 years of jail time to draw from: Fellow inmates testified that Wilson bullied them, bragged about the murder, and initiated convicts into the Bloods. They also had a juicy scandal to draw on: While incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, Wilson had sex with a correctional officer, Nancy Gonzalez, on numerous occasions. Gonzalez, who pleaded guilty earlier this summer to the illicit liaisons, gave birth to Wilson's son in March.
This time around, it took the second crew of 12 jurors only five hours to re-sentence Wilson, now 31, to death. At a hearing last week, Garaufis made it official.