NEW YORK (AP) — Convicted killer Ronell Wilson came from an impoverished background, but the spending for his legal defense has been lavish.
The Justice Department, after learning that an appeals court threw out a death sentence for Wilson in 2011, decided to again seek the ultimate punishment with a new jury rather than let the defendant serve an automatic life term. Court officials say since then, at least $1.6 million in taxpayer money has gone to his defense — and the meter is still running.
The escalating costs are one facet of a decadelong legal odyssey that began with Wilson’s brutal slaying of two undercover police officers on the night of March 10, 2003. It picked up again in Brooklyn last week with the start of the repeat of penalty phase of his case, which so far is playing out in a mostly empty courtroom with grim-faced jurors listening to witnesses recounting the circumstances of the case by rote.
“I asked, ‘Why did you do that?’” a cooperating accomplice, Jesse Jacobus, recalled about a conversation with Wilson after the shootings. “He told me he didn’t give a (expletive) about nobody.”
Wilson — once a scrawny street gang member nicknamed Rated R — appears in court these days wearing glasses and dress shirts appropriate for a college classroom. But the 31-year-old often looks distant and disengaged, and away from court he’s demonstrated a cynical streak that defies his life-or-death predicament.
In February, officials revealed that after being transferred from federal death row in Indiana to a Brooklyn lockup to await the proceedings, Wilson fathered a child with a jail guard. There’s also evidence that while he and Jacobus were behind bars together, Wilson instructed him to try to win sympathy from the jury by saying they had a “rough upbringing.”
Jacobus, who pleaded guilty, is serving a 15-year to life term that he is hoping to get reduced by cooperating.
The new set of jurors, though not deciding Wilson’s guilt, have once again heard about the fate of two New York Police Department officers who were posing as illegal gun buyers. The pair met with Wilson for what they thought was a deal to buy a Tec-9 submachine gun. But Wilson decided to rob them instead and ended up shooting both in the head as one pleaded for his life.
Once again in evidence is a scrap of paper Wilson was carrying when he was arrested. It had the rap lyrics saying that if he was ever crossed, he would put “45 slogs in da back of ya head” and “I ain’t goin stop to Im dead.”
Wilson, “to impress members of his gang, to raise his status, blasted hollow-point bullets into their brains,” prosecutor James McGovern said this week in opening statements. “They deserved a life. Now if justice is to be done, the defendant does not.”
The defense will counter with anecdotal evidence of Wilson’s troubled background as the son of a crack-addicted mother living with a dozen relatives crammed into an apartment at a crime-infested housing project.
In his opening statement, defense attorney Richard Jasper recounted how during childhood, Wilson also endured time in a psychiatric hospital, where he told a worker that he wanted to die.
Deciding his client’s fate would be “the most important decision of your entire life,” the lawyer told jurors, saying that letting him die “on God’s time and not man’s time” was the best option.
The previous jury found that Wilson should die by lethal injection. He became 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.
But the appeals court reversed the decision, saying that prosecutors violated Wilson’s constitutional rights by telling the jury his decision to go to trial demonstrated his lack of remorse and refusal to accept responsibility.
After Wilson won his appeal, Judge Nicholas Garaufis cautioned lawyers he had just presided over a capital case for a mobster where the defense bill was $5 million. It ended with the jury choosing to impose a life sentence.
“If I’m going to spend four months of my career and millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money trying another one of these death penalty cases, I need to know the attorney general wants to try it,” he said.
Questioning whether it was worth pursuing the Wilson case made sense, given the city’s track record in federal death penalty case, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.
“It’s hard in New York City to have a jury return a death sentence,” Dieter said. “Judges there often look at that and ask, ‘Why would you spend all this money?’”
Under similar circumstances, the Justice Department has decided not to retry the penalty phase of capital cases at least four times since the federal death penalty was established in 1988, according to the nonprofit. But, without explanation, Attorney General Eric Holder authorized the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn to move ahead.
How much that decision will ultimately cost is unknown. A 2008 study found that the average cost of defending a federal death case is more than $620,000. By the time the appeals process plays out, that total typically tops $1 million, Dieter said.
So far in the new proceedings, Wilson’s lawyers — who, by law, can be paid up to $178 an hour — have had him examined by several experts in a failed bid to have him declared ineligible for the death penalty because he’s mentally disabled. Jury selection lasted five weeks. And the penalty phase is projected to take at least a month.
But under the circumstances, the expense of the proceeding is worth it, said Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives Endowment Association.
“This particular cop killing is one of the most egregious I’ve ever seen,” the union official said. “There were two victims, and (Wilson) knew exactly what he was doing. … I understand the concern about cost, but sometimes you must move forward with what is right.”