July 24, 2013
Ronell Wilson, whose first death sentence for killing two undercover police detectives was overturned, was sentenced again on Wednesday to die by a federal jury that heard gripping testimony about his time in jail, where he roamed freely after the shootings, intimidated fellow inmates and fathered a child with a guard.
The anonymous 12-member jury took just five hours to reach its decision to return Mr. Wilson to federal death row, where no other New Yorker has served time in six decades.
As the jury foreman responded to preliminary questions from a 22-page verdict sheet, Mr. Wilson, 31, slumped forward with his chin in his hands as the tension rose in the courtroom in Federal District Court in Brooklyn. When the foreman finally said “yes” to the death penalty, Mr. Wilson leaned back and looked over to his family. They wept as he was led away.
Outside the courthouse on Wednesday, Rodney Andrews Sr., the father of one of the victims, Detective Rodney J. Andrews, said that he was pleased with the outcome. “He’s done too many things,” Mr. Andrews said of Mr. Wilson. “He’s proven that he’s not going to change.” Mr. Andrews said that he wanted to watch Mr. Wilson’s execution, and when asked why, he replied, “For satisfaction.”
Detective Andrews’s wife, MaryAnn, said she was too emotional to speak. The family of Detective James V. Nemorin, the other victim, did not attend court on Wednesday.
In a statement, the police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, said: “It was an assault on the society that those officers represented, and for that reason their murders had to be answered with the full force of punishment at society’s disposal. To do otherwise is to invite chaos.”
Loretta E. Lynch, the United States attorney for the Eastern District, whose office prosecuted the case, said that she hoped the verdict would bring closure to the victims’ families.
Mr. Wilson’s lawyers declined to comment. A judge is expected to formally sentence Mr. Wilson in the fall.
The legal case against him has lasted more than a decade.
On March 10, 2003, Mr. Wilson killed Detective Andrews, 34, and Detective Nemorin, 36, who were participating in a sting operation to buy an illegal gun. He shot each once in the back of the head at point-blank range on a secluded street on Staten Island.
In choosing the death penalty, the jury unanimously found that prosecutors proved every element of their case, including that Mr. Wilson committed the murders for financial gain and that he poses a future danger.
The jury rejected arguments posed by the defense — that life in prison was punishment enough and that Mr. Wilson’s rough childhood filled with bad influences should spare him from death. Only one member of the jury found that the federal prison system could restrict Mr. Wilson’s inappropriate behavior. Only two found that “Ronell Wilson’s life has value.” None felt that his background mitigated against the imposition of the death penalty.
Death penalty trials are exceedingly rare in New York, where the state’s highest court struck down the death penalty in 2004 and where capital cases at the federal level are often resolved before trial.
Federal prosecutors vigorously sought the death penalty against Mr. Wilson, taking the case from state prosecutors on Staten Island, when capital punishment at the state level was invalidated. They won a death verdict in 2007, the first one in New York since 1953.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his death sentence in 2010, ruling that the prosecutor had violated Mr. Wilson’s constitutional right not to testify by telling jurors that if Mr. Wilson had felt any remorse, he would have taken the stand. The panel commuted the sentence to life in prison without parole, but prosecutors decided to again seek death.
With Mr. Wilson’s guilt never in doubt, the question at the heart of the monthlong sentencing trial was: How much punishment is enough?
Prosecutors argued that prison alone would not do. The prosecutors showed a dramatic video of several guards at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn storming into a recreation pen to retrieve Mr. Wilson, who had refused to be handcuffed. When the guards emerged from the pen with Mr. Wilson, he smiled.
One of their witnesses described seeing a guard, Nancy Gonzalez, walk away from Mr. Wilson’s cell one day, leaving him there with his pants down and his genitals exposed. Mr. Wilson had several sexual encounters with Ms. Gonzalez, fathering a child, Justus, who was born in March.
Defense witnesses described Mr. Wilson’s difficult childhood, during which he shuttled between relatives as his mother, an alcoholic and drug addict, was often absent. He spent years in an overcrowded and squalid home, where the adults who influenced him were criminals.
Life in prison was punishment enough, Mr. Wilson’s lawyers argued, for someone who never really had a chance.
But Celia Cohen, one of the prosecutors, said that only the death penalty assured justice. “He’s not going to stop until he’s dead,” she said in her closing argument. “Truer words were never said.”