NEW YORK – An appeals court on Wednesday tossed out the first federal death sentence given in New York in five decades, finding that prosecutors improperly advised a jury after it convicted a man of killing two undercover police detectives who were posing as gun buyers.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan nixed the death sentence given to Ronell Wilson in March 2007 after concluding that prosecutors made legal errors during the penalty phase of the trial that were not corrected by the judge in his instructions to jurors in Brooklyn.
The appeals court upheld the conviction of Wilson in the March 10, 2003, robbery and murder of Detectives James Nemorin and Rodney Andrews on Staten Island.
Wilson was caught two days after the killings in Brooklyn, where arresting officers found rap lyrics he had written that appeared to describe the murder, the appeals court noted.
"We're reviewing the decision and considering our options," said Robert Nardoza, a spokesman for federal prosecutors.
Beverly Van Ness, a lawyer for Wilson, said she was "very relieved and happy" that her client will soon be removed from federal death row at a Terre Haute, Ind., prison.
"We have new possibilities for getting a life sentence," she said.
Unless the ruling is appealed further, the case will be returned to a lower court judge, who will preside over a new death penalty phase in which jurors weigh aggravating and mitigating factors in deciding whether Wilson should be sentenced to death.
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.
The leader of a police officers union echoed that sentiment.
"This vile individual should not be spared because of a mere technicality," said Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch said. "He is a cold-blooded killer who deserves the fate that he has brought on himself."
The appeals court noted that no juror found that Wilson was remorseful or that he took responsibility for his actions.
Wilson had denied the claim by prosecutors that he knew the undercover detectives were policemen when he shot them. During the trial's penalty phase, he read a statement in which he said he was "truly sorry" for the pain he had caused.
The 2nd Circuit said it was vacating the death sentences because prosecutors violated Wilson's Constitutional rights when they argued to the jury that Wilson failed to accept responsibility for his crime because he went to trial.
The appeals court said it was unconstitutional to "disallow the death penalty for those who plead guilty but allow it for those who exercise their right to a trial."
The appeals court also said prosecutors erred when they cited Wilson's decision not to testify as another reason for jurors to reject his remorse.
He was the city's first federal defendant to receive a death sentence penalty since 1954, when it was imposed on a bank robber who killed an FBI agent.
Associated Press writers Tom Hays and Colleen Long contributed to this report.