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Criminal or Patient?
In 1992 a jury in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, concluded
that serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer did not have a
mental disorder. This despite the fact that Dahmer
had cannibalized the body parts of some of his
victims and engaged in sexual acts with all of them
after their deaths. I testified as an expert psychiatric
witness at Dahmer's trial, and the verdict did not
come as a complete surprise to me. After all,
Dahmer had taken the lives of seventeen young men;
there was no death penalty in Wisconsin; there is
considerable cynicism concerning mental illness as
"an excuse to beat the rap" in criminal cases; and
surely somebody needed to be held accountable
and punished. Shortly after I returned home from his
trial, a good friend, a very competent and respected
federal prosecutor, asked me only partly in jest,
"How many people need to be eaten in Milwaukee
before one can be considered to have a mental
Like Jeffrey Dahmer, Michael Ross is also a serial
killer. He, too, has been diagnosed with a mental
disorder. Both Dahmer and Ross have described
overpowering sexual preoccupations and urges,
which they say drove them to commit their heinous
acts. Were they both lying? And if so, why would
someone arguably so evil as Ross have waived his
constitutional rights while at most only a suspect, and
confessed when the police encouraged him to do so
for the sake of his victims' families?
All of the doctors who examined Ross after his
arrest, including those who did so at the request of
the local prosecutor, diagnosed him as having Sexual
Sadism. According to The Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, persons
afflicted with Sexual Sadism experience recurrent,
intense, sexually-arousing fantasies and urges in
which the psychological or physical suffering of a
victim is sexually exciting. That sounds so simplistic.
The suffering, deep grief, and understandable rage of
his victims' families endures even now, years after
Michael Ross's arrest, as an ongoing testimonial to
the hopelessly sad aftermath of his actions. How
could Sexual Sadism, if it even exists at all, possibly
account for his horrible crimes, the rape and murder
of a number of girls and young women?
When it comes to the issue of sexual make-up, all
persons are not created equal. We differ from one
another regarding: 1) the types of partners to whom
we are, or are not, sexually attracted; 2) the types of
behavior that we do, or do not, crave sexually; and
3) the intensity of our sexual desires. Remarkably,
some persons, like Dahmer, are sexually attracted to
corpses; others are attracted to children. Some men
crave cross-dressing, exposing themselves in a
public setting, or coercive, as opposed to
consensual, sexual acts. The spectrum of human
sexual differences, though rarely discussed openly
and maturely, is remarkably broad.
There is still much to be learned about why we differ
from one another in such ways. What is certainly
true about our sexual make-up is that we do not, as
children, choose how it will develop. No one in their
right mind would decide as a child to grow up
afflicted with recurrent, intense, sexually-arousing
urges and fantasies about torturing and killing young
women and girls. People like Michael Ross, who are
plagued by these recurrent, abnormal sexual
cravings, did not, at some point, simply decide to
have them. They did not simply choose to
experience an "alternative lifestyle." Instead, they
discovered themselves to be afflicted. In my
professional and personal opinion, no human being
has ever deserved that discovery.
Perhaps it is not Ross's fault that he has been
plagued. Yet surely it was his responsibility to do
something about it. Did he not have free will? Did he
not choose to act irresponsibly?
I trained for many years to become a physician. In
the course of my work with patients, I have come to
appreciate the power that biological drives can
sometimes exert over human behavior. Right now,
hundreds of thousands of Americans are spending
millions of dollars trying to diet. I can guarantee each
and every one of them absolute success -- if they
just eat less. In spite of sincerity and conviction,
however, it is the presence of appetite, so invisible
and unobservable to others, and even vague to
oneself, that can at times defeat resolve. Biological
cravings can compromise free will.
However, overeating only leads to obesity; it
certainly has nothing to do with sadistic sex and
murder. Why should we believe Michael Ross, who
sought treatment in prison after insisting that he, too,
had become weakened in his resolve, after trying to
resist the repeated, invisible, incessant cravings of his
pathological sexual appetite? In making such a claim,
was he just trying to absolve himself of
God (and/or nature) has instilled within each one of
us a number of powerful biological drives. Without
eating, a hungry man will die; without sex, the human
race will die. It is important to eat, and it is important
to have sex. When the sexual drive becomes
"aimed" in the wrong direction (as it did, for
example, in Ross's case), it still repeatedly craves
satiation. Mentally, such cravings are experienced as
preoccupying thoughts and recurrent urges.
Could Michael Ross not have relieved himself of
sexual tension by masturbating instead of acting on
his sadistic urges? Although masturbation can often
temporarily diminish sexual desire, it can also whet
subsequent sexual appetite. If a primary purpose of
sex is the survival of the species, then masturbation
can hardly be intended by nature to prevent
subsequent sexual activity with others. Frequency of
masturbation may just serve as a marker for the
intensity of the sexual drive. For Michael Ross,
going home and masturbating, or even engaging in
consensual sex with a woman, would not have
amounted to successful self-treatment.
Even if we accept the argument that Ross was so
driven by his cravings that he could not control
himself through willpower alone, surely he still had a
moral obligation to seek help. One of Ross's
greatest regrets today, as he finally grieves for the
souls of his victims and for their families, is that he
did not seek help. Instead, while trying to stop, he
repeatedly rationalized to himself that he would be
able to do so on his own. Today, having finally
received treatment in prison, his perceptions are no
longer distorted by incessant sadistic cravings; he
can no longer rationalize away the enormity of his
acts. He now lives on death row with a pervasive
sense of guilt and profound remorse. Is Michael
Ross lying when he claims to have been
overpowered by pathological sexual cravings?
Perhaps he is. But suppose, just for the moment,
that he is not. Making the moral argument that he
should have been able to control himself doesn't
prove that he was actually able to do so. The fact
that some may be capable of successfully resisting
these cravings does not mean that all are.
Tragically, at this very moment there are many
others in American society afflicted with recurrent,
abnormal sexual cravings, or simply so driven
sexually that they need help. Some are still
adolescents, or even younger. If, in our zeal for
moral certainty, we choose to deny the possibility of
such mental afflictions --and thus retard additional
scientific or medical study -- we will leave a sad and
unnecessary legacy for future potential victims.
Some people seem driven to repeated sexual
offenses as a consequence of their sexual disorders.
As a result, some states are now passing laws to
prevent these individuals from being released from
prison, even if all their time has been served, as long
as it can be shown that they still have a disorder
which makes them dangerous. The U.S. Supreme
Court recently affirmed the constitutionality of this
controversial approach. But few states, if any,
provide adequate treatment at the beginning of
incarceration, or prophylactically to those who may
want help but have not committed a crime as yet. If
society wants those who have not committed crimes
(or have yet to be apprehended for their crimes) to
come forward, it will need to assure them that they
will be helped rather than injured.
As a society we rightly demand moral accountability
and responsibility from one another. At the same
time, we have to appreciate that, at least in some
instances, we are dealing with broken minds in
desperate need of repair, not with evils that can be
punished away. The minds, as well as the souls, of
individuals like Michael Ross can be -- and have
been -- disordered and tortured. It is not that he
was, somehow, just having a good time. In my
judgment, he was not of sound mind.
At the time of his sentencing, the laws of
Connecticut held that a convict's mental disorder
was enough to mitigate against the death penalty. In
Ross's case, the jury that sentenced him to death
was never informed that the state's own psychiatrists
even agreed that a mental disorder was present.
That is why his death sentences have been
overturned, at least temporarily. Subsequently, as so
often happens when the public comes to believe that
a punishment has been insufficient, the Connecticut
legislature has since eliminated mental disorders as a
mandatory mitigation against execution.
It is remarkable that, for the most part, our criminal
justice system still treats the purse snatcher, the
income tax evader, and the sexual sadist as though
they were all essentially the same. Punish the
offender and teach him and others like him a lesson.
But prison alone cannot punish away abnormal
sexual cravings, nor can it confer upon the afflicted
individual a heightened capacity to resist succumbing
to them. On the other hand, medications exist that
can act as "sexual appetite suppressants," thereby
treating the afflicted individual and enhancing the
community's safety. Published recidivism rates for
testosterone-lowering therapies that diminish the sex
drive have consistently been low. Psychiatric
disorders such as Sexual Sadism are every bit as
much a public health problem as they are a matter of
criminal justice. Even though Michael Ross should
remain permanently quarantined from the
community, this needs to be understood. In no way
does this diminish our compassion or concerns
about victims and their families. On the contrary, it
reflects our resolve to try to prevent similar
afflictions, and similar victimizations, in the future.
Dr. Fred S. Berlin is an associate professor at the
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the
founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders
Clinic, and director of the National Institute for the
Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma.
May 12, 2000
Web posted at: 2:35 PM EDT (1835 GMT)
NEW LONDON, Conn. (AP) -- Serial killer
Michael Ross received six death sentences today,
six years after his original death penalty was
overturned by the state Supreme Court.
Judge Thomas P. Miano ordered the execution be
held Sept. 15, although all death sentences are
automatically stayed pending Supreme Court
appeals in Connecticut, which hasn't executed an
inmate since 1960.
Ellen Roode, whose daughter, April Brunais, was one of four teen-age girls
was convicted of kidnapping and killing in eastern Connecticut the 1980s, said,
"I will have closure when you are gone and you know longer have the breath of
life that you took from my daughter."
Ross cried as he apologized to his victims' families, saying any apology
inadequate but that "an absence of an apology would be even more
The sentence was handed down according to the verdict of a Superior Court
jury, which last month found that Ross should not be spared the death penalty.
Ross had claimed a disorder called sexual sadism drove him to rape and kill
defense the jury last month rejected.
The victims were Robin Stavinsky, 19; Wendy Baribeault, 17; and two
14-year-old friends, Brunais and Leslie Shelley.
Ross, 40, was convicted and sentenced to death in 1987. The state Supreme
Court ordered a new penalty hearing in 1994, ruling that prosecutors withheld a
letter from a psychiatrist that might have helped Ross' defense.
Ross is serving two life sentences for killing two other women in Connecticut.
He claims to have killed two other women in New York, but has not been
By Brigitte Greenberg,
Associated Press writer
NEW LONDON, Conn. -- A serial killer changed his mind
Wednesday and decided to put up a defense rather than
face the death penalty without a fight.
Michael Ross, 39, had fought Connecticut courts for
years to be executed without putting on a defense. Ross
said he now wants a thorough defense because Superior
Court Judge Thomas Miano last month ruled that a death
penalty hearing must be held.
Ross said his defense would be that a mental illness was
to blame for his crimes.
Miano said a pact between Ross and special prosecutor
C. Robert Satti, essentially allowing for Ross' death by
injection without a fight, violated state law and the state and
"Your decision hit me a little harder than I expected,"
Ross said Wednesday. "Upon further reflection, ... I fully
intend to put forth a thorough and spirited defense."
A former insurance salesman, Ross strangled at least six
girls and young women in the early 1980s. He was convicted
and sentenced to death.
In 1994, the state Supreme Court upheld his conviction
but overturned his sentence because the trial judge had
excluded part of a psychiatric report that might have helped
him escape death.
The report said Ross suffers from a mental illness --
sexual sadism. A new penalty hearing was ordered.
But Ross dismissed his public defenders and instead
worked with Satti to reach their death penalty pact.
He has said he is not suicidal but rather wants to spare
the victims' families the additional pain of another penalty
The judge denied a 60-day delay which Ross, who has
been representing himself, asked for so that he could try to
find a private attorney to take his case for free.
"I'm not going to lose 60 days," Miano said. "There's
been game-playing going on, and I'm not going to tolerate
Miano scheduled a hearing for Aug. 18 and said he
wants to begin jury selection in late September or early
October. He also issued a gag order barring lawyers from
discussing the case with the media.
Michael B. Ross was
convicted of the
kidnapping, rape & murder of four
teenage girls in New London,
Connecticut, in 1983 & 1984, as well
as the murder of 2 other women in
1982. A 1981 graduate of Cornell
University, Ross was an insurance
salesman in the Norwich area. On his
arrest in June 1984, he confessed to
strangling the women & raping all but
At trial, Ross's defense
not contest his guilt; instead, Ross
pleaded insanity. At his sentencing,
his attorneys argued that he suffered
from extreme emotional disturbance &
an abusive childhood. Ross was the
first person to be sentenced to death
under a statute enacted by the
Connecticut state legislature 7 years
In 1994 Ross wrote
newspapers to announce that he was
dropping his appeals & requesting
execution. Then, because the trial
court had excluded evidence that
would have supported a life
sentence, he won a new hearing from
the Connecticut Supreme Court. At
the end of 1995, Ross was trying to
fire his attorneys & waive the new
"Very first feeling
I had was my heart
pounding. It was really pounding &
then the next feeling was my hands
hurt because I manually strangled
them & my fingers were all cramped
& then the third feeling I remember
was fear coming in, "Oh, my God,
there's a dead body in front of me,"
& that's when I would hide the
bodies & go through all that."
Michael Ross doesn't
actually strangling the women he
killed. Michael was a predator. His
victims, ranging in age from 14 to 26,
were faceless to him.
"I would think anyway
that I should
have in my mind a picture of what
they looked like when I was
strangling them, when I was killing
them, & I don't. I have no idea of
what they looked like. My only
recollection of what they looked like
was what was in the newspaper
afterwards, like the high school
picture or whatever."
At college & after,
Ross raped &
murdered while at the same time
maintaining normal relationships with
"They were saying
that when I'm
with one type of women, when I'm
with one that pampers me...I don't
hurt anybody. When I'm in an
aggressive relationship with
someone who fights & we bicker &
we argue all the time, then that's
when I go out & hurt people....With
one relationship, I killed 4 people.
Then I was in another relationship
where I didn't kill anybody. Then I
was in another relationship where I
killed 4 people & they call it
something like 'splitting.'"
His account was delivered so
matter-of-factly. These were real lives
he was talking about, yet to him they
were anonymous. Michael Ross was a
serial murderer, so his crimes had
produced large headlines. I had
sought Ross out because I needed to
include a worst case in my project. It's
so easy for the public to cry for
execution, but I wanted to illuminate
the sympathetic & the heinous with
the same light.
Michael attributes his problems to
mental imbalance: he could not
control his emotions. Troubled in
childhood by his fantasies, he became
more & more tormented in college.
"But I guess the easiest way to
explain it is everybody's had a tune
that's been playing in their head,
like a melody that they heard on the
radio or something. It just plays over
& over & over again....I have that &
no matter how hard you try to get rid
of that melody, it's still there. And
that could kind of drive you nuts. But
if you replace that melody now with
thoughts of rape & murderer &
degradation of women..."
I had thought I would encounter a
madman, a captive of Thorazine & the
straitjacket. But because of modern
pharmaceuticals, his life had changed.
He did not fit my preconception of the
archetypal serial killer. Ten years after
his crimes, Ross was friendly, affable,
even ebullient-he bounced. His
curiosity & enthusiasm overwhelmed
& slightly unsettled us. He had once
been a handsome Ivy Leaguer, an
engineering major. Somehow he had
metamorphosed into a killer.
During his years on death row,
Michael demonstrated his instability
by appealing at different times to be
executed, castrated, or retried. Now ,
on therapeutic medications, Ross
says he no longer has the fantasies
that made him dangerous. No matter
what scientists find out about him &
his obsessions, mental illness or
insanity, he will never be released.
"If I'm executed or if I die, I just want
to be cremated & my ashes scattered.
I want no gravestone, no
reminders....I just want to be
DNA evidence has linked Ross,
40, to the rape and murder of Paula
Perrara, a high school student who disappeared from Wallkill, N.Y.,
prosecutors said. He was indicted Thursday.
"Michael Ross picked her
up, drove her to a secluded area, dragged her
from his car, raped her and murdered her," said Frank Phillips, the
district attorney for Orange County.
Ross was a student at Cornell University at the time.
He is scheduled to appear
in an Orange County courtroom on Oct. 13 for
arraignment. Court officials said he has to be arraigned in person.
Connecticut prison officials
have not received any paperwork from New
York yet on Ross' arraignment, said Christina Polce, a spokeswoman for
the Connecticut Department of Correction. She declined to comment on
details for transporting Ross, saying "it would be risking public
safety and security."
Police in New York linked
Ross to the case after he admitted in a BBC
interview that he had committed at least 1 murder in New York that had
not been linked to him. New York police got a search warrant and
collected DNA samples from Ross which matched those found on Perrara.
"Until he gave that one interview
of 1994, we always were holding off
because we didn't want to do anything to interfere with Connecticut's
case," said Assistant District Attorney John Geidel.
Ross was convicted of the
Connecticut slayings and sentenced to death in
1987, but the state Supreme Court in 1994 overturned the penalty. The
high court, which upheld Ross' capital felony convictions, ordered the
new penalty hearing after ruling the exclusion of a psychiatrist's letter
in the 1st trial prevented the defense from possibly swaying the jury to
impose a life sentence.
He was resentenced to death in May.
Ross has previously confessed
to 2 other murders in New York, but has
never been tried in those cases.
Perrara disappeared March
1, 1982 after leaving early from her high
school because she didn't feel well, said Geidel.
"She was hitchhiking unfortunately," Geidel said Friday.
Her body was found 17 days later.
New York authorities received
the final report on DNA tests in the
Perrara case this spring, said Geidel. Previous tests showed the DNA was
consistent with Ross, but new testing that could home in more accurately
had just become available earlier this year in the state police lab, he
Ross, a former insurance
salesman, admitted preying on his victims as
they walked or hitchhiked down quiet country roads in New London County.
He raped some of them. Ross also is serving 2 life sentences for killing
2 other women in Windham County.
He has claimed a disorder
called sexual sadism drove him to rape and
kill a defense the jury rejected.
(source: Associated Press)
By Brigitte Greenberg,
Associated Press writer
NEW LONDON, Conn. -- Serial killer Michael Ross has
literally signed away his life, putting his name at the bottom of an
extraordinary 10-page agreement with a prosecutor to go to his
The pact between Ross and special prosecutor C. Robert
Satti could force Connecticut -- a state that has not carried out
the death penalty since 1960 -- to face an execution soon.
Legal experts around the country are calling the deal
unprecedented and say it has dangerous implications. A human
rights group says it was the product of an "unholy alliance" of the
killer and prosecutor.
Even the judge in the case has expressed reservations,
holding off accepting the agreement until hearing further
arguments on whether it is legal and binding.
Ross, a former insurance salesman and Ivy League graduate,
strangled at least six girls and young women in the early 1980s.
He pleaded guilty to two killings in 1985 and was convicted of
four others in 1987. Later that year, he was sentenced to death.
In 1994, the state Supreme Court upheld his conviction but
overturned his sentence because the judge had excluded part of
a psychiatric report that might have helped him escape death. A
new penalty hearing was ordered.
But Ross dismissed his public defenders and wrote to Satti
with the idea that a new penalty hearing could be avoided
altogether if they could come to some arrangement.
Over the course of three years, the prosecutor and the
defendant -- acting as his own attorney, with a court-appointed
lawyer as an adviser only -- worked side by side to create their
lethal brief. The document coldly details how he how captured
and killed his victims. Most of them were raped and their bodies
dumped in the woods.
The contract, signed March 11, ends with the declaration that
"a sentence of death will be imposed."
Plenty of other death row inmates around the country have
pleaded guilty or waived all appeals after being sentenced to
die. Ross' case differs in two major respects.
First, he signed an explicit contract with the prosecution that,
if found to be binding, seals his fate. And second, the deal would
eliminate the penalty hearing altogether.
Legal experts say this appears to be improper because
under Connecticut law, no one can be sentenced to death
without a penalty hearing. They also object because Ross' fate --
unlike that of many death row inmates -- is far from hopeless.
Under the law, Ross would be spared the death penalty if a
judge or jury at the penalty hearing found just one mitigating
factor, such as a history of child abuse. Ross has a psychiatric
report that says he suffers from a mental illness.
Ross, 38, a graduate of Cornell University with a degree in
agricultural economics, denied he is suicidal and said he simply
wants to spare the victims' families from having to go through
"They have been hurt enough by my actions in the past," he
said during a hearing before Superior Court Judge Thomas
Miano. "I don't want them to have to hear the awful details of how
I sadistically brutalized and murdered their daughters."
Satti refused to comment yesterday.
The judge has asked Satti and Ross to submit briefs on the
legality their agreement and set a hearing for April 9.
Patrick Culligan, chief of the capital defense team for the
state Office of the Chief Public Defender, is trying to intervene.
"Our Supreme Court has said that in Connecticut, if the death
penalty is imposed, it must be the result of a reasoned moral
judgment. The parties do not seem to be addressing that
interest at all," Culligan said. "It comes down to couple of guys
trying to come up with their own rules."
A serial killer has apparently overdosed in his prison cell. Michael Ross,
alternately cooperated with and opposed efforts to put him to death, was hospitalized
this morning after an apparent overdose. Ross, 39, was discovered on the floor of his
death row cell at Northern Correctional Institution in Somers around 1:25 a.m.,
Correction Department Capt. Scott Semple said. Ross was "unresponsive" when
discovered by guards, Correction Department spokeswoman Christina Polce said. He
was treated at the prison, then taken around 4 a.m. to the University of Connecticut
Health Center in Farmington. Hospital spokesman Patrick Keefe said Ross was being
treated in a secure area of the hospital designed to handle prisoners. He said Ross was
in "serious" condition, meaning that his vital signs such as pulse and blood pressure
were unstable. Keefe said Ross appeared to have suffered from an overdose, but
could not say whether his stomach had been pumped. Police told the newspaper that
state police and the Correction Department's security division were investigating. She
would not say if authorities were investigating the incident as a suicide attempt or
whether other inmates were involved. Ross strangled at least six girls and young women
in the early 1980s. He pleaded guilty to two killings in 1985 and was convicted of four
others in 1987. Later that year, he was sentenced to death. In 1994, the state Supreme
Court upheld his conviction but overturned his sentence because the trial judge had
excluded part of a psychiatric report that might have helped him escape death. For
several years, Ross pressed for his execution, claiming he wanted to spare the victims'
families another trial. He changed his mind after the death agreement he signed with
state prosecutors was thrown out in July. Last month, court papers were filed asking
that Ross, a former Jewett City insurance salesman and graduate of Cornell University,
be spared the death penalty because of what lawyers claimed is the "cruel and unusual"
nature of lethal injections. Ross will be resentenced next year. Jury selection for that
process is scheduled to begin Feb. 23.
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