SOMERS, Conn. – Serial killer Michael Ross (search) has tried for 10 years to speed his own death.
On Saturday, little more than an hour before his scheduled execution, Ross' own attorney caused another delay, saying he needed time to examine his own potential conflict of interest.
Now attorney T.R. Paulding's (search) relationship with his client — and the ethics involved in helping him die — are under close scrutiny. Ross hired Paulding last year to help him expedite his own execution, which would be the first in New England in 45 years.
"It's a good example of where the adversarial system breaks down," said Stephen Bright, a Yale law professor and director of the Southern Center for Human Rights (search) in Atlanta. "There's nobody to tell the court, 'Wait a minute, maybe this isn't in his best interests."'
Paulding is a death penalty opponent. And while he has insisted Ross is competent to make decisions about his punishment, he has also acknowledged that's because Ross is on medication to control his mental illness.
Paulding did not elaborate on the possible conflict of interest, but noted that his client did not ask for the delay. The execution was rescheduled for 9 p.m. Monday.
The request came just hours after a federal judge threatened to take Paulding's law license for ignoring evidence that Ross' motives were not as they seemed.
Ross has said he wants to die to end the anguish of his victims' families. But U.S. District Judge Robert Chatigny said evidence including accounts from another inmate and a retired deputy warden have indicated that deplorable death row conditions may have played a significant role in Ross' decision.
"I see this happening and I can't live with it myself," Chatigny said in a telephone conference with Paulding, according to court records. "What you are doing is terribly, terribly wrong. No matter how well motivated you are, you have a client whose competence is in serious doubt and you don't know what you're talking about."
The allegations from the inmate and warden were included in an appeal filed by Ross' father. The Supreme Court (search) denied the appeal Friday.
Chatigny warned that Paulding could lose his law license if the new information proved true, according to the records. But Chief State's Attorney Christopher Morano said the warden and inmate did not show evidence that Ross was incompetent.
Michael Fitzpatrick, one of Ross' former attorneys and the head of the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said Chatigny's actions are sound.
"What he's saying is that you've got an ethical duty to investigate his mental health issues, his competency, the voluntariness of his waiver, and you've also got an ethical duty to bring to light any information you have on those issues," Fitzpatrick said Saturday.
Paulding has defended his job of assisting Ross, a 45-year-old Ivy League graduate who confessed to eight murders in eastern Connecticut and New York in the early 1980s.
"I just thought it was the right thing to do, to give him a voice in court and give him a voice throughout," Paulding said in an interview with The Associated Press earlier this month.
Paulding said his primary job is to advocate for his client, even if Ross' wish is unorthodox.
Defense attorney Hugh Keefe agrees: "You should do what a client wants, period. That's what you're paid for."
Ross hired Paulding last year after he decided to forgo all appeals and fired his public defenders. Paulding said he did not take the decision to represent Ross lightly.
"I felt that he had made a rational decision, and I felt that he deserved and needed someone who would be his voice," Paulding said.
He has since helped persuade courts that Ross is mentally competent and fought off attempts by the state's public defenders, Ross' own father and others to stop the execution.
Paulding's assurances that Ross is competent were a weighty factor in the courts' decisions to dismiss appeals, Fitzpatrick said.
"He's been publicly declaring for two months that he's absolutely certain that Michael Ross is competent. He's been telling every judge and the public that any lawyers trying to advance the theory that Ross is not are disingenuous. For Paulding, at the 11th hour to stand up and say, 'I may have some doubts,' is going to subject him to enormous criticism," he said.
Meanwhile, attorneys for Ross' father vowed to continue fighting the execution, but would not say if new claims would be filed.
"We are going to fight it until the last possible moment," said Antonio Ponvert III, an attorney for Dan Ross. "If there is a way to stop this execution, we're going to find it and we're going to do it."
Paulding has said he believes Ross is sincere in wanting to end the suffering of his victims' families. He said Ross is taking medication for mental illness and is much different from the man the families know.
That's little comfort to family members of his victims, who said they were shocked by the latest delay of Ross' execution.
"He's guilty. He wants to die. So if he isn't executed, whom would you execute?" said Lan Manh Tu, whose sister, Dzung Ngoc Tu, was Ross' first known victim.
The state must execute Ross by 11:59 p.m. Monday or its death warrant expires. That would force officials to go back before a judge and ask for a new one and could delay execution for up to six months.