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"It's Time for Me to Die : an inside look at Death Row"
This essay was published in Journal of Psychiatry and Law (Winter 1998),
Whole Earth Journal, and in the Utne Reader.
By Michael Ross., B.S
The author, a convicted serial killer, writes of his experiences
Connecticut's Death Row as the first man sentenced to death in that
state in some 20-plus years and who may possibly be the first man
executed in Connecticut since1960. The author describes the
paraphiliac mental disorder that led to the crimes, his treatment for
that disorder, the decision that led to his failed attempt to accept
the death penalty, and his hopes that something might be learned
from his experiences that would prevent future victimizations. At
the time of this writing, his fate has not been determined.
Its time for me to die. I know this because the warden is in front of my cell reading the death warrant to me and several guards are waiting to escort me to the execution chamber. They open my door and walk me into a room less than ten feet away. In the center of that room I see a large, brown, wooden, very uncomfortable-looking chair with several leather straps attached - its the electric chair. About ten feet in front of the chair is a cinder-block wall. I can't see through to the other side because of a set of Venetian blinds that are closed, but I know that on the other side of that wall are the official witnesses to my imminent execution.
Now things begin to get weird. I notice a large bay window. The side windows are wide open, and they have no bars. Outside it is an absolutely beautiful spring morning. The sunlight is streaming into the room, and I can see and hear the birds chirping outside. The guards walk me to the chair. I'm facing the witness chamber when the blinds are opened. My "official" witnesses are wearing little party hats, have party favors, and are laughing and drinking champagne. Confetti floats through the air.
The guards sit me down and strap me into the chair, but suddenly weightless I rise into the air, leaving my body behind as I float out the window and up over the prison. Its no longer a sunny spring day. Its cold and dark, and the prison lights shine harshly on the ground. Its a bitterly cold winter evening, with no snow on the ground. I float up over the front of the prison and see a crowd of hundreds of people gathered at the front gate. They suddenly start counting down in unison just like it was New Years Eve : Five....four....three...two....one. And they start cheering, shouting and hollering as the lights dim and flicker. There is a pause for 30 seconds, and then they cheer again as the electric chair releases its second discharge of death, causing the prison lights to dim and flicker once more. I now know that I am dead.
My name is Michael Ross, and I am a serial killer responsible for the rape and murder of eight women in Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island. I have never denied what I did, have fully confessed to my crimes, and was sentenced to death in 1987. Now, however, I am awaiting a new sentencing hearing—ordered by the Connecticut State Supreme Court—that will result either in my being re-sentenced to death or in multiple life sentences without the possibility of release. The crucial issue in my case is, as it has been from the beginning, my mental condition at the time of the crimes—the infamous and much maligned "insanity defense." For years I have been trying to prove that I am suffering from a mental illness that drove me to rape and kill, and that this mental illness made me physically unable to control my actions. I have met with little success.
I used to have that dream
on a regular basis when I first came to Death Row. It wasn't
really a dream, but more of a nightmarish daydream or vision. I was
pretty depressed and would spend most days on my bunk with the covers pulled
up over my head. I had this vision almost daily - while semi-awake.
And it seemed as real as anything I have actually experienced.
I could almost taste, smell, and feel the sensations. Each time I actually
thought it was real until I open bay window and told myself, 'thats not
right.' Fortunately I no longer experience the horror of this vision
- very seldom anyway. Regular doses of the antidepressant Prozac keep
me relatively stable, and the visions tend to stay away.
What's It Like to Live on Death Row?
Death row here in Connecticut isn't as rough as some death rows elsewhere—especially the ones down South—but it's no "country club" either. Death row in this state is located in a "super-max" prison. I live in a seven-foot by twelve-foot cell—large by prison tandards — consisting of a metal bunk, a desk, and a combination toilet/sink. I live alone in this cell and spend twenty-three hours a day here . My only sight of the outside world is through a three-inch by three-foot slot window, which has a wonderful view of the razor-wire fencing and outdoor recreation yard of the prison next door.
I eat all of my meals in my cell—there is no dining hall in this facility. My meals are delivered to me in a Styrofoam box with a plastic spoon and fork—no plastic knives. Some of the other inmates in this institution eat their meals at tables in the dayrooms like civilized men, but that is a privilege not afforded to death row inmates.
I am allowed one hour of outside recreation five days a week. Our recreation yard is approximately twenty-five feet square with thirty-foot-high concrete walls and chain-link fencing across the top. We are not allowed so much as a handball, and the only activity for exercise is jogging in circles on the concrete floor. Our recreation hour begins at 8 a.m., which means we can see the sun on the walls, but we have to lock up before the sun rises high enough that we can actually stand in it. The situation is so poor that only two of us go outside on a regular basis—no one else even bothers. (Michael's note : no longer allowed group recreation. Death Row inmates are no longer allowed to socialize together - individual recreation only.)
We are allowed two hours of "out-of-cell" time in our dayroom from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. daily. At that time we can use the telephone to make collect calls (two fifteen-minute calls per day). Death row inmates have absolutely no contact with other inmates.
By far most of my time is spent alone in my cell. When I first came to death row my father bought me a color television set, on which I receive six local broadcast stations. I have a typewriter that I use to type articles that I submit to various publications—mostly anti-death-penalty articles, but more recently I have branched out into more spiritually based articles for religious publications. I also have a small Walkman radio on which I listen to classical music. They say that music soothes the savage soul, and classical music does in fact relax me. I spend many hours with my headphones on listening to this music with my eyes covered—it is how I cope with life here.
Initially I was placed in the "Death Cell," a cell directly adjacent to the execution chamber and usually used only to house the condemned man for the last twenty-four to forty-eight hours before his execution. A guard was posted at a desk directly in front of my cell for twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I had absolutely no privacy. I got dressed in front of the guard. I used the toilet in front of the guard. Everything that I did was in front of the guard. And everything was written down in my very own "Death Row Log Book": What time I woke up in the morning. What time I ate my meals and brushed my teeth. Everything. You cannot begin to imagine what that absolute and total lack of privacy does to you. You cannot begin to imagine how it begins to destroy your very sense of humanity—like you are an animal in a cage on display at the zoo. No wonder I spiraled into a clinical depression and had visions of my own execution.
That lasted for almost a year. Then they replaced the guard with a closed-circuit television system that monitored the inside of my cell—for my privacy, they said. In reality, it was because I wasn't a disciplinary problem, and it was cheaper to monitor me by closed circuit television at a desk at the front of the unit than to post a guard on a single inmate for 24 hours a day. And it actually gave me less privacy, for at the other end of the camera was a monitor viewed by anyone who happened to pass by, including any female officers. The camera lasted for four more years before I was finally able to convince them that it was an unnecessary invasion of my privacy. The guards make their rounds every half-hour or so, but at least now I know about when to expect him or her so I can time when to use the toilet or get dressed.
When I first came to death row, I was a very high-profile inmate. Everyone knew who Michael Ross was. Everyone knew what I had done. Everyone knew I was sentenced to death, and everyone—so it seemed—agreed with that sentence and hoped it would be carried out as quickly as possible.
All of that made me different from any other inmate. At the time, I was the only man under a sentence of death in the State of Connecticut. For two and a half years - until another man was sentenced to death - I was the only man deemed by the state to be unworthy of life itself.
Most people here are anonymous. Few prisoners know who the other inmates are or what they did, so they are not judged by their crimes, but rather by what kind of people they are. If they are jerks, they tend to be treated as jerks. If you stay by yourself and don't bother anyone, you tend not to be bothered. But if you stick out, everyone jumps on you. For some people its a way to deal with their own insecurities - by putting you down they are boosting themselves up. For some people its a way to divert attention from themselves - I've found that those who yell "tree jumper" the loudest are quite often rapists themselves. Then there are those who join in to be part of the crowd-these are the ones who are friendly when they are alone with you, but suddenly can't stand you when others are critisizing you. And finally, there are those who are just so damn miserable that they can only feel better by trying to make others miserable too.
Not everyone fits into one of these categories. I have made some friends. Most of them are people who don't believe everything they read in the newspaper or hear through the grapevine. They are the ones who tend to approach people with an attitude of "how you treat me is how I will treat you." Unfortunately people like these are few and far between in prison. But at times they can be like a breath of fresh air. When someone simply says, "Hey, Mike, how's it going?" or "Hey, Mike, hang in there," it can mean a lot —especially during the rough times.
And there have been rough times. I received a great deal of harassment from my fellow inmates, and also from the guards. Whenever I went somewhere in the prison—to medical or visiting—there were always the stares, the whispers, and the threats: "Hey, man, do you know who that is?" "He's the one who killed all those girls." "I wish they would let the SOB into population, then we could teach him a lesson." "Ripper!" "Child raper!" "Hey, tree-jumper, we're gonna kill you!" "If it was my sister, you would already be dead." And the ever-present sound mimicking the electric chair: "Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzz."
I have been assaulted on several occasions. I've been hit with bars of soap, doused with cups of urine and feces, and had my food messed with by the guards, who spit on it or put hairs in it. I've had to go to the free-world hospital twice. Once I was stabbed fifteen times by an inmate with a pair of barbershop scissors taped to his hand; I had been set up by the guard, who let the non-death-row inmate out to attack me. The other time I was beaten by an inmate in a stairwell and received several stitches. Fortunately for me, things have settled down considerably since those early years. I still get the stares and the occasional comment, but things are much quieter today.
As you might imagine, I have been examined by a multitude of psychiatric experts over the past fourteen years. All of them—even Dr. Miller, the state's own expert psychiatric witness—agree I suffer from a paraphiliac mental disorder called "sexual sadism." This is a mental illness that, according to the testimony of the experts, resulted in my compulsion "to perpetrate violent sexual activity in a repetitive way." The experts also agree that my criminal conduct was a direct result of the uncontrollable aggressive sexual impulses caused by the disorder.
The state's only hope of obtaining a conviction and death sentence was to muddy the waters and inflame the jury members' passions so they would ignore any evidence of psychological impairment. In my case, as you might expect, that was quite easy to do, and the state succeeded in obtaining multiple death sentences.
So why was a new sentencing hearing ordered ? An amicus curiae ("friend of the court") brief was filed by a group of eminent psychiatrists from Connecticut. They were connected to neither the state nor the defense, but they got involved because - as their brief states - of their concern "that the psychiatric issues were distorted at both the guilt and penalty phase of the trial." They summed up our main point of contention perfectly : "By allowing Dr Miller to testify in a way that led the jury to believe that Mr Ross could control his behavior - when in fact he and all the other psychiatric experts were of the view that Mr Ross could not - the court allowed the jury to be effectively misled." The Connecticut State Supreme Court agreed.
What exactly is a paraphiliac mental disorder? It is very difficult to explain, and even more difficult to understand. I'm not even sure that I myself fully understand this disease, and I've been trying to understand what's been going on in my head for a very long time now. Basically, I am plagued by repetitive thoughts, urges, and fantasies of the degradation, rape, and murder of women. I cannot get those thoughts out of my mind.
The best way for the average person to try to understand this is to remember a time when a song played over and over again in your head. Even if you liked the melody, its constant repetition was quite annoying, and the harder you tried to drive it out of your head, the harder it seemed to stick. Now replace that sweet melody with noxious thoughts of degradation, rape, and murder, and you will begin—and only just begin—to understand what was running rampant through my mind uncontrollably.
Some people believe that if you think about something day in and day out, you must want to think about it. But that just isn't true when you are discussing mental illness. Most people can't understand because they just can't imagine wanting to commit such horrific acts of unimaginable cruelty. They can't begin to understand this obsession of mine. They think that if you fantasize about something you must want to make the fantasy come true. But it's far more complicated than that. They can't understand how I could fantasize such disgusting imagery, how I could derive such pleasure from that fantasy, and yet be so disgusted later by the exact same thoughts or urges, or at the thought of how much I enjoyed the fantasy just moments before. I could relive the rapes and murders that I committed, and when reliving those despicable acts in my mind I could experience such orgasmic pleasure that it is hard to describe. But afterward I felt such a sense of loathing and self-hatred that I often longed for my execution. I was tired of being tormented by my own sick, demented mind. So unbelievably tired.
And the urge to hurt someone could come over me at any time. Powerful urges welled up for no reason, and with no warning. I remember once when I was being escorted from the Mental Health Unit back to my cell after seeing my psychiatrist. There was a small stairway that led from the unit to the main corridor. I was being led, without any restraints, by a small, young, female correctional officer. When I got to the stairwell, I was suddenly flooded with an overwhelming desire to hurt her. I knew I had to get out of that stairwell, and I ran up the stairs and out into the hallway. I will never forget how she shouted at me to stop and threatened to write me a disciplinary report—she didn't have a clue as to what was going on. I didn't know this woman; she had done me no harm; yet suddenly I was filled with a powerful desire to hurt her. She never knew just how badly I wanted to hurt her that day. She never knew how close I came to attacking her and maybe even killing her. You would think that after being sentenced to death and living on death row, such urges and thoughts would be curbed. But they weren't, for this illness defies rationality.
I have found some relief, however. About two and a half years after I came to death row, I started to receive weekly injections of a drug called Depo-Provera. Depo-Provera has been used for years as a female contraceptive in Europe and recently was approved for use in America. For sex offenders it is used at a significantly higher dosage than what women take for contraceptive purposes: Women receive 150 milligrams every three months; I received 700 milligrams weekly. In men, Depo-Provera significantly reduces the body's natural production of the male sex hormone, testosterone. For some reason, whether because of some abnormal biological hookup in my brain or some sort of chemical imbalance, testosterone affects my mind differently than it affects the average male's mind.
A few months after I started to receive my weekly injections, my blood serum testosterone levels dropped below prepubescent levels (last month my level was 12 ng/dl, with the normal range being 260–1,250 ng/dl); and as this happened, nothing less than a miracle occurred. My obsessive thoughts, urges, and fantasies began to diminish.
Having those thoughts and urges is like living with an obnoxious roommate. You cannot get away from him because he is always there. What Depo-Provera did was to move that roommate down the hall to his own apartment. The problem was still there, but it was a whole lot easier to deal with because it wasn't always in the foreground. He didn't control me anymore—I was in control of him. It was an unbelievable sense of freedom. It made me feel as if I were a human being again, instead of some sort of horrible monster. For three years I had a sort of peace of mind.
Then I developed liver problems, a very rare side effect of the hormonal shots, so I was forced to discontinue the medication. Soon thereafter the noxious thoughts, fantasies, and urges returned. It was horrible. I felt like a blind man who had been given the gift of sight only to have it snatched away again. There was an alternative medication, but it lacked FDA approval as a treatment for sex offenders, so the Department of Corrections refused to approve its use. From my past history we knew what the problem was: testosterone. Get it out of my bloodstream so that it can't reach my mind and I am okay. So I asked to be surgically castrated, with the support and approval of my treating psychiatrist. But the department—which I am sure was afraid of headlines such as "Sex Offender Castrated by State"—refused my request. It took more than a year of fighting by a lot of good people here in the Mental Health Department before I was allowed to receive the alternative medication, a monthly shot of a drug called Depo-Lupron, which I have been receiving to date.
What made the year without medication particularly bad was that I began having thoughts and urges about hurting people here. I remember one young woman in particular, a nurse who had always gone out of her way to help me. She always had a smile, and was always friendly to me, even though she knew who and what I was. I started having thoughts and urges of hurting this woman, and that really tore me up inside. Here was someone whom I liked, who had always helped me, and how did I repay her kindness? By wanting to rape and strangle her. I felt uncomfortable whenever she was around, and I felt so guilty and ashamed that I could hardly look at her. Fortunately nothing ever happened, and she never found out what was going through my mind. That time is past now because I am receiving my medication, but the memories and guilt haven't gone away.
One of my doctors once told me that I am, in a sense, also a victim—a victim of an affliction that no one would want. And sometimes I do feel like a victim, but at the same time I feel guilty and get angry for thinking that way. How dare I consider myself a victim when the real victims are dead? How dare I consider myself a victim when the families of my true victims have to live day by day with the pain of the loss I caused?
So what if it is an affliction? So what if I was really sick? Does that really make any difference? Does that absolve me of my responsibility for the deaths of eight totally innocent women? Does it make the women any less dead? Does it ease the pain of their families? No!
I close my eyes and I see the families of the women whom I killed. Even though my trial was over a decade ago, I cannot make the visions go away. I can see Mrs. Shelley on the witness stand testifying about the last time she saw her daughter alive. I can still see the agony in her face and hear the pain in her voice as she described how she and her husband searched for their daughter, and I can vividly recall how I actually saw them searching along the roadway the day after her death. At the time I didn't know who they were, but I knew whom they were searching for. I close my eyes and I am haunted by the vision of Mrs. Stavinsky on the witness stand testifying how on Thanksgiving Day she had to go to the morgue to identify her daughter's body. "She was hurt bad," she testified as she broke down and cried. "She was hurt real bad."
It is hard for me to close my eyes and not see these people as they appeared during the court proceedings. I can still, eleven years later, very clearly see how they looked at me; I can still feel their anger and hatred. I tried very hard to pretend none of this bothered me. I put up a facade of nonchalance to show that nothing was getting to me. I intentionally chatted and joked with my lawyers and with the sheriff's deputies as if I didn't have a care in the world. But although I tried very hard not to show it, I did see the families of my victims. And it is their faces, their pain, that haunt me today.
I wish I knew how to tell them just how sorry I am. But there are no words to describe what I feel. How do you tell someone you are sorry when you have stolen something so very precious from them? How do you tell them you are sorry when those very words sound so inadequate that you are ashamed to even speak them in their presence for fear of making things worse? I cannot even face them, never mind ask for their forgiveness. And while I would really like them to understand what happened and why, I don't expect they will ever truly understand the insanity that drove me to kill their loved ones.
And that is the big question: Was I really insane? The big question that has everyone all riled up is a question that in the end may not matter at all. Whether I was sane or insane can't change the facts of what happened, can't bring anyone back, can't ease the families' pain. And it can't cleanse my guilt, or wash the blood off of my hands. It can't change anything, resolve anything, or absolve anything.
I think that is part of the reason why I volunteered for execution and more recently tried to accept the death penalty and avoid another full-blown penalty hearing. When I first came to death row I was filled with anger at how the prosecutor had twisted and distorted the facts of my case. I was consumed with an intense desire to prove that my mental illness does in fact exist, and that the mental illness did in fact deprive me of my ability to control my actions, and that my mental illness was in fact the cause of my criminal conduct. I wanted so badly for everyone to understand and believe that I really was sick and that it was the sickness within me that did the killing. I wanted to prove that I wasn't the animal the state portrayed me to be. I just wanted the truth to be known.
It took a very long time - years - in fact - for that anger and intense need to exonerate myself to leave me. With the help of my medication, I understand my past much better now, and I am much more at peace with myself now, and not so much concerned with what others might think of me. I would still like to prove the real reasons why I committed such atrocious acts, but it is no longer an overriding concern of mine. And to be completely honest, after years of banging my head against the wall trying to prove my case, I'm tired and no longer certain that I will ever be able to prove my lack of criminal responsibility, and I have come to believe that any such thoughts are simply wishful thinking.
There are times, usually late at night when things finally begin to quiet down around here, that I sit in my cell and wonder, "What the hell am I doing here?" Most people would probably think that this is a pretty silly question; obviously I'm here because I've killed many people and I deserve to be here. And that is okay on one level. But I think of the underlying reasons why I did those terrible things. I believe I am severely mentally ill and that the illness drove me to commit my crimes. I know that I may never be able to prove that in a court of law, but in here, in my cell, I don't have to prove anything to anybody. I know what the truth is. I know that I have an illness and that I'm no more responsible for having that illness than another person is for getting cancer or developing diabetes. But somehow "You're sick, and sometimes people just get sick" doesn't seem to cut it. I feel responsible. I wonder if things in my childhood may have made a difference. My mother was institutionalized twice by our family doctor because of how she was treating, or rather abusing, us kids. Maybe things would have been different if I had run away as my younger brother did. But this is an exercise in futility, because you can't change the past—yet at the same time you can't help but wonder what might have been.
In a way, I guess I am luckier than most inmates, even though I am sitting here on death row. I know and long ago accepted that I can never be freed, that in fact to release me would be to condemn others to their deaths. Regardless of the reasons why I kill—be it premeditated murder, as is generally thought, or the result of insanity—the fact remains that I kill, and there is no reason to believe that will ever change. That's not to say I don't want to get out of this place, for it is very dehumanizing here, and I greatly long for the outside. But I feel a sense of contentment knowing I will never be released. I know that must sound strange coming from a sadistic killer like me, but I do feel as if a huge load has been lifted from my shoulders.
So where do I stand today? The state prosecutor will once again seek the death penalty in the upcoming resentencing hearing. The only real issue that needs to be resolved at that hearing is whether or not my "mental capacity was significantly impaired." Under the law that applies in my case, if I am found to be suffering from a "significant mental illness," that will be considered a statutory mitigating factor that by Connecticut law would preclude my being sentenced to death. In that case I would be automatically sentenced to six consecutive life sentences without the possibility of release. The prosecution's strategy will undoubtedly be as it was last time—to inflame the jury's passions into ignoring the evidence of a psychiatric illness. And there is a good chance that he will once again succeed.
Knowing the situation as I do, and wishing to spare all concerned the emotional agony of going through a new trial—especially the families of my victims—I wrote a letter to the prosecutor on September 25, 1994, which said in part:
There is no need for the penalty hearing to go forward. There is no need and no purpose served in unnecessarily opening old wounds. There is no need and no purpose served in inflicting further emotional harm or distress on the families of my victims. I do not wish to hurt these people further—it's time for healing.
I had volunteered for execution precisely to avoid the situation that we currently find ourselves in. And I am willing to hand you the death penalty "on a silver platter" on the condition that you will work with me to get this over with as quickly and as painlessly as possible. There is no need to drag the families of my victims through more lengthy and disturbing court proceedings. Please allow me to go into the courtroom to admit to my actions; to accept responsibility for my actions; and to accept the death penalty as punishment for those actions. I'm not asking you to do this for me, but for the families involved, who do not deserve to suffer further and who, in some small way, might gain a sense of peace of mind by these actions and my execution.
For almost four years I worked with the state's attorney to fashion an agreement that would allow the death penalty to be imposed without going through a full-blown penalty hearing. We signed that agreement on March 11, 1998. However, on August 1, 1998, a Superior Court judge rejected the agreement because he found it "unsettling" that the prosecutor would work with me on my wish to be executed without a fight. He ruled: "Shortcuts on procedure where an individual's life hangs in the balance cannot be tolerated under our system of criminal justice." This very effectively destroyed four years of hard work. Since I cannot appeal his decision, it appears that I have no choice but to prepare for the long and painful penalty hearing. I very much regret that I have failed the families of my victims. Jury selection and testimony for this new penalty hearing should begin in a few months.
So what can be learned from this sad story ? I'm not really sure, because it seems to be pretty tragic all the way around. Maybe it is an indictment of our current medical system and societal attitudes—especially in how we treat the mentally ill. We can begin by treating mental illness as just that: an illness that needs to be recognized and treated instead of stigmatized. Without a doubt there are other Michael Rosses out there in various stages of development. They need places where they can go for help, and they need to know that it is okay for them to go for that help. One of the most difficult and painful things for me to deal with today is to know that had I begun to receive just a one-cc injection of Depo-Lupron once a month fifteen years ago, eight women would be alive today. The problem is real, but the issue of sexual deviancy is a taboo topic in our society. We would much rather turn our backs to the problem and pretend that it doesn't exist.
Am I trying to blame society for my illness? Am I trying to imply that you, as a member of society, are responsible for my turning into a killer? No, of course not. But I am saying that society needs to learn and to make the necessary changes to prevent its recurrance. It's easy for you to point your finger at me, to call me "evil," and to condemn me to death. But if that is all that happens, it will be a terrible waste, for in a sense you will be condemning yourselves to a future filled with Michael Rosses. Future tragic murders such as those I committed can be prevented, but only if society stops turning its back, stops condemning, and begins to squarely acknowledge and treat the problem. Only then will something constructive come out of the events that took the lives of eight women, destroyed the quality of life of their families and friends, resulted in my incarceration, and probable execution, and caused untold shame and anguish to my own family. The past has already happened. Its now up to you to change the future.
Michael's additional note
: On May 12, 2000, I was resentenced to death. My execution
has been stayed pending the resolution of the appeals process. MBR
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