Sunday, May 6, 2007

Killer's fate hinges on assessment of stability

From left, Blaine Ross' uncle, Mike Ross, his wife and another aunt, Patricia Matyovsky, hold hands as they sit with Victim Advocate Suzie Brown, of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, as they hear the jury's recommendation of the death penalty for Blaine Ross Thursday at the Manatee County Courthouse in Bradenton. The same jury found Ross guilty, last Friday, of two counts of first-degree murder in the beating deaths of his parents in 2004.


BRADENTON -- When he was 10, Blaine Ross wrote a poem in which he described kicking, punching and tearing the stuffing out of a teddy bear.

His teacher called it good poetry, but a mental health expert said last week that the words were an early sign of severe emotional duress.

The two interpretations of the poem were indicative of the varied evaluations of Ross, and his problems, presented in court last week.

Lawyers on both sides offered differing opinions on the cause of Ross' problems and how much he should be held responsible for the killings. The ability of each side to make its argument could hold sway with Circuit Judge Edward Nicholas in his decision on whether Ross lives or dies.

Ross, convicted last month of killing his parents in Bradenton in 2004, is awaiting Nicholas' ruling on whether he should be executed; a jury voted 8-4 on Thursday in favor of the death penalty for Ross.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers generally agreed that Ross, 24, was a troubled youth who never grew up.

Ross' lawyers wanted jurors to see the double murder as the culminating act of a disturbed man who never got the help he needed. On the other side, a state prosecutor said Ross was a calculating killer who routinely rejected help from family members and friends.

Family and friends said they increasingly grew alarmed at Ross' behavior as he got older. He rebelled against his father, his temper flared, and as a young adult Ross took to marijuana and the tranquilizer Xanax.

But prosecutor Art Brown said that each swing of the bat Ross used to bludgeon his parents was a conscious decision. According to authorities, he killed them for money.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I submit everyone other than someone who is truly insane -- like someone who thinks he's Jesus Christ or Napoleon -- has free will," Brown said in court. "He thought through his actions that night."

Adam Tebrugge, one of three assistant public defenders who represented Ross, said Ross' motivation is not clear, and that should mitigate his level of responsibility for the killings.

A mental health expert testified that Ross shows symptoms of schizophrenia, including hearing voices and having a distorted sense of reality.

Ross, his lawyers said, acted with disregard to consequences.

The illness destroyed his ability to think, to make sound decisions and to control impulses.

"It just wasn't understood by anyone that he wasn't just some rambunctious teenager, but that these were the early symptoms of this disease," Tebrugge said.

Ross grew up in Odessa, in Hillsborough County, before his parents moved to Bradenton.

His parents -- Richard Ross was a nuclear medicine specialist and Kathleen Ross was a former Verizon executive -- worked long hours.

At Lakewood Ranch High School, schoolwork did not seem important to Ross, said his 29-year-old sister, Kimberly Sanford. Ross dressed in black clothes and did not feel accepted.

Kathleen Ross wanted her son to get counseling, but Blaine Ross would not talk to anyone he did not know, his sister said."He would never understand a different perspective than his own," his sister said.

Sanford said her brother "self-medicated" through drugs.

Substance abuse did not cause Ross to murder his parents, Tebrugge said. Drugs only exacerbated his mental instability, he said.

"It's like throwing gasoline onto a fire," Tebrugge said.

Brown said Ross' drug use was "just a voluntary choice on his part, just like all the other choices.

"Many people in Ross' life, Brown said, tried to show him the way, but Ross ignored the help.

"You can rest assured that if they saw that he was trying to make something of himself, if he got off the drugs, got a job and stuck with it, they would have helped him any way they could," he said.

One juror, a 66-year-old man who spoke to the Herald-Tribune, said he did not believe that Ross was mentally ill.The juror said that he did not buy into the science of brain imaging that purports to show what a damaged brain looks like compared with a normal brain.

The brutality of the murders, the juror said, was the product of a man knowing what he was doing and hoping to get away with it.

"He has tried all of his life to get out of situations," said the juror, who voted in support of the death penalty.

The eight jurors who voted for death -- Florida does not require a unanimous vote -- were not swayed by Ross' family, who spoke about their love for Ross.

oss, Tebrugge said, has a potential to improve in prison and to contribute. Letter-writing may bring joy to his family, he said.

"The choice that the state of Florida is asking you to make, the choice of death, is the end of that potential," Tebrugge said in court.

"It's a sentence that Blaine is so apart from our community, so apart from our humanity, that there is nothing worth saving. And that's wrong."

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