Sunday, April 29, 2007
By NATALIE NEYSA ALUND
In the Lionshead driveway on 57th Drive East, the front-page headline read: "ROSS GUILTY."
Next door was the home where Richard and Kathleen Ross were found murdered in their master bedroom in the early morning hours of Jan. 7, 2004.
On Friday, a jury found the couple's son, Blaine Ross, guilty of bludgeoning his parents to death with a baseball bat. A jury deliberated for more than 10 hours Friday before handing up its verdict and will return this week to hear more testimony before deciding whether to recommend that Ross be executed or sentenced to life in prison.
Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty.
Tom Baker, who lives across the street from the former Ross home, now up for sale, said he felt justice was served.
"I'm not surprised he was found guilty," Baker said as he looked across the street.
His thoughts on Ross' punishment?
"Whatever justice is all about will decide that," Baker said.
During interviews with Manatee County Sheriff's detectives, Ross initially denied the killings but later confessed. He often said he didn't remember committing the crimes because he'd been drinking heavily, smoking marijuana and taking Xanax in the days leading up to the killings.
Virginia Blackmore, a retired police dispatcher who lives adjacent to the former Ross home, said Ross had no excuse for the murders.
"Every family has problems," the 75-year-old woman said. "He was on drugs, maybe he wasn't thinking right - No! I have a hard time to believe his reasoning. I don't care if he was under drugs when he did it . . . You don't kill somebody."
Glenn Dunn, who lives around the corner from the Rosses' former home on 39th Street Court, agreed justice was served.
"From all I learned from, I think the death penalty is suitable," Dunn said while sitting inside his garage. "He killed two people."
Money at the root
Prosecutor Art Brown, during closing statements of the two-week, double-murder trial, told jurors Ross killed his parents because they cut him off financially. At the time of the murders, Ross was 21, jobless and living with his parents at the family's East Manatee home.
Prior to the killings, Blaine and Kathleen Ross had signed a personal contract in which she agreed to lend him $1,400. A condition of the contract included that he pay it back and never again ask for money.
On the day his parents' bodies were found, Ross dialed 911 and told authorities he'd found the couple dead in their bedroom, and the family's home, it appeared, had been burglarized.
Prior to the 911 call, the jury found, he had killed his parents, placed ropes around their necks and clumsily staged a burglary to cover his tracks. He then took the bat he killed his parents with and either threw it off the DeSoto Bridge into the Manatee River or put it in a Dumpster. Investigators never found the weapon.
Ross' defense team contended his confession was coerced, and that there was no physical evidence that "reliably and conclusively" linked Ross to the crime scene.
"I've never dealt with a case like that where I thought someone was confessing to a crime even though they didn't do it," Detective William Waldron, who took the confession, said Saturday.
"As far as the evidence . . . it spoke for itself," Waldron said.
Ross' parents' blood was on a pair of black pants, later found at his ex-girlfriend's home.
"When he made the 911 call he was wearing shorts, and I think the defense tried to say he got the blood on his pants when he discovered his parents, which would be impossible," Waldron said Saturday.
Regardless, the detective said he is relieved the case is closed. If he had to do it again, he said, he wouldn't have conducted the interview any differently.
"I fully expected the defense to tear apart my methods . . . but I don't blame them," he said. "That's the nature of the job and the reason why our laws are the way they are.
"I've watched the interview probably six times, at that point when we're doing the last interviews - we'd been up for more than 20 hours, you've got exhaustion setting in for the detectives. There is frustration, and you want to do the best job possible and bring this case to an end quickly for the family's sake and for the people in the neighborhood, so they would feel safe."
Although the seven-man, five-woman jury is expected to return to the Manatee Count Courthouse on Tuesday morning to decide if Ross lives or dies, the decision is ultimately up to presiding Judge Edward Nicholas.
Robert Batey, a Stetson University law professor, called penalty phases "minitrials," in which prosecutors have to establish one or more aggravating circumstances to make defendants eligible for the death penalty. Aggravating circumstances include whether the murder was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel, or if it was conducted in a premeditated manner without any pretense of moral or legal justification.
The defense can present any information that would influence the judge and jury to sentence him to life instead of death.
There are only two men in Florida from Manatee County on death row: Daniel Burns Jr. and Melvin Trotter.Burns, of Highland Park, Mich., was sentenced June 2, 1988, for murdering Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Jeffrey Young with the trooper's own revolver during an Aug. 18, 1987, traffic stop on Interstate 75. He shot Young in the face at point-blank range.
Trotter was sentenced May 18, 1987, for the fatal stabbing of Virgie Langford, 70, during a robbery at her Palmetto grocery store June 16, 1986.