Saturday, November 17, 2007

Manatee man gets first death sentence in county in almost 20 years


BRADENTON -- The lives of Richard and Kathleen Ross were taken in the middle of the night, their heads crushed with a baseball bat gripped in the hands of the son whom they loved.

Blaine Daniel Ross, a troubled youth, unemployed and drifting in life, slipped ropes around the necks of his parents. He scattered clothing to stage a burglary, a move that did not fool anyone.

Despite the brutality of the January 2004 murders, and the clumsy effort to conceal the crime, his other relatives stood by him. They did not want him to die. Ross, his family and his attorneys said, was a life worth saving.

But now Ross, 25, will join the ranks of Florida's death row inmates, nearly 400 killers awaiting execution by lethal injection. Ross was sentenced to death Friday.

In balancing aggravating factors with those that portray Ross as a sympathetic person, "the scales of life and death tilt unquestionably to the side of death," Circuit Judge Edward Nicholas said in court.

Ross showed no emotion, seeming prepared for the words that followed.

"Accordingly, Blaine Ross, you have not only forfeited your right to live among us, but under the laws of the state of Florida you have forfeited your right to live at all," said Nicholas, who presided over the Ross trial earlier this year.

The death sentence, which court observers said was largely anticipated, was the first in Manatee County in nearly two decades.

Of the 385 men on death row in Florida, there are 13 killers convicted in Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties. No women are awaiting execution.

For the state, the death sentence instantly became a highlight in the career of a veteran prosecutor who has unsuccessfully sought execution in several murder cases in recent years.

"They were just sentences for terrible deeds," said Assistant State Attorney Art Brown, who walked away from court smiling.

Attorneys for Ross said the case will be automatically appealed to the Florida Supreme Court. A ruling is expected in the next couple of years.

Assistant public defenders Carolyn Schlemmer, John Scotese and Adam Tebrugge were dismayed by the judge's order. The sentence, the lawyers said, will not serve as a deterrent.

"My feeling is that the sentence imposed compounds the tragedy of the case," Tebrugge said outside the courthouse. "In my opinion, this is not an appropriate case for the death penalty, and I am very sorry that the state of Florida saw fit to pursue that here."

Executions in the United States are on hold at least for a few more months, when the U.S. Supreme Court plans to debate whether the procedure for lethal injection is tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment.

Courts across the nation have blocked executions until the U.S. Supreme Court renders an opinion.

Ross, his lawyers said, should have been sentenced to life in prison without parole, punishment that critics of the death penalty say is worse than death.

This summer, a jury in Bradenton recommended that Richard E. Henderson, 22, who killed his parents, brother and grandmother in November 2005, spend the rest of his life locked up. A judge agreed.

In that case, Henderson's attorneys, including Schlemmer, said Henderson was insane when he attacked his family with a metal pipe, and that he has a lengthy history of mental illness.

Ross did not rely on insanity.

Instead, his lawyers said Manatee County sheriff's detectives coerced a confession and that someone else may have been responsible for the murders at the Ross home in the Lionshead subdivision. Jurors did not buy the defense.

"The law is always a profession where one can second-guess how you handled a case," Tebrugge said in an interview Friday.

The prosecution's case against Ross was solid: the state had a confession, blood evidence on Ross' pants and a motive.

Ross vehemently denied killing his parents during more than four hours of questioning with sheriff's detectives. He finally broke down, saying he did not know why he killed his mother and father.

"You were right that I didn't do this on purpose," Ross told an investigator. "It took me a second to realize that it happened."

Brown, the prosecutor, said Ross killed his parents for money. He thought he would get thousands of dollars. In the end, he got nothing.

Ross' mother had changed the PIN to her ATM card a day before she was killed. Just hours after the murders, Ross tried unsuccessfully to convince a bank employee to give him the number.

Prosecutors described a chilling crime scene, with blood on the ceiling of the bedroom. Some of that blood, Brown said, ended up on Ross' pants.

Nicholas, the judge, said Ross likely killed his parents swiftly so as to not wake the other one. Richard Ross, a nuclear medicine expert, was struck twice in the head; his wife, Kathleen, a Verizon executive, was struck at least four times.

"It is clear to this court that the defendant has a loving family who cherishes him," the judge said, reading from a 22-page order. "The brutality of the murders stands in stark contrast to the quality of the relationships in his life."

Ross' attorneys begged for his life, saying that years of drug abuse made Ross unable to think clearly and to behave appropriately. An expert who testified at Ross' trial in April said Ross suffers from a pre-schizophrenia mental condition.

Nicholas said there is no substantial, or even convincing, evidence that Ross suffers from a debilitating mental illness.

Ross, the judge said, fabricated symptoms such as hallucination as part of his defense.

But Nicholas struggled with how much weight to give to Ross' extensive drug use as he debated whether Ross was under the influence of drugs when he killed his parents. There was no proof, he said, that drugs rendered Ross unable to discern right from wrong.

And the fact that Ross was 21 when he was arrested did not carry much weight, Nicholas said. Ross was an adult then and had shown an ability to care for others who needed him.

Florida stands alone in the country in not requiring a unanimous jury vote in life-or-death decisions in capital cases.

In the Ross case, jurors voted 8-4 in recommending death. Judges rarely cast aside jury recommendations.

The recommendation, Nicholas said, reflected the conscience of the community.

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