New York, NY –
A federal appeals court on Wednesday tossed out the first federal death sentence given in New York in five decades. The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals says Ronell Wilson needs to be re-sentenced because prosecutors improperly advised the jury that Wilson's failure to plead guilty was evidence he lacked remorse.
The court also said prosecutors erred when they said Wilson's decision not to testify was another reason for jurors to doubt his remorse. The judges noted that no juror found that Wilson was remorseful or that he took responsibility for his actions.
David Ruhnke, a longtime federal death penalty lawyer, says a defendant has a constitutional right to plead not guilty and opt for trial.
"It's one thing to say you get a break for pleading guilty," says Ruhnke, "but it's certainly improper to say that a defendant should be sentenced to death because he did not plead guilty."
Wilson was sentenced in March 2007 to die by lethal injection, after being convicted of shooting and killing undercover police detectives James Nemorin and Rodney Andrews on Staten Island on March 10, 2003. Nemorin and Andrews had been posing as gun buyers on Staten Island.
Wilson was caught two days after the murder in Brooklyn, where police officers found rap lyrics he had written that seemed to describe the murder.
Ruhnke says it's extremely rare for a federal death sentence to be reversed and that there are still 50 to 60 people on federal death row today.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly "believes that the murder of a police officer is an attack on society itself and should be punished with the death penalty," spokesman Paul Browne said.
Wilson has been on death row in a federal prison in Indiana. Unless the ruling is appealed further, his case will be returned to a lower court judge, who will preside over a new sentencing phase.
Wilson was the city's first federal defendant to receive a death sentence since 1954, when it was imposed on a bank robber who killed an FBI agent.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who covers criminal justice, terrorism and the courts for WNYC. She found her way into public radio after practicing law for five years, and can definitely say that walking the streets of New York City with a microphone is a lot more fun than being holed up in the office writing letters to opposing counsel.