Monday, 15 January 2007

This time, the convicted killer wants to live

Last Islander executed was eager to die, got his wish after political battle

Monday, January 15, 2007


The convicted murderer, a Staten Islander, was eager to die rather than rot behind bars. But the governor, a Catholic, adamantly opposed capital punishment.

So Mario Cuomo pulled every string in his political cabinet to keep 32-year-old Thomas Grasso of St. George alive to serve a sentence of 20 years to life for the 1991 strangling of an elderly St. George man, rather than see him extradited to Oklahoma, where he faced certain execution for murdering an 87-year-old Tulsa woman.

But then Republican George Pataki turned the capital case into an election promise and upset Cuomo in New York's tightly contested 1994 gubernatorial race.

In one of his first acts after being sworn in, Pataki signed Grasso's extradition papers, and on March 20, 1995, Grasso got his fondest wish in the form of an injection of lethal drugs at Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

He was the last Staten Islander executed for murder.

Ronell Wilson could be the next.

The same jury of seven men and five women who last month convicted the 24-year-old Stapleton resident of brutally murdering undercover Detectives James Nemorin and Rodney Andrews is expected to reconvene in Brooklyn federal court tomorrow to decide whether Wilson should get life in prison or be put to death.

Unlike the Grasso case, which crossed state lines and became a political football during an election year, Wilson's case is federal.

If the jury decides Wilson should die, he will be sent to the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., where 46 inmates currently sit on Death Row. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and two others have died by lethal injection at Terre Haute since 2000.


Unlike Grasso, Wilson is fighting for his life. Defense attorneys Ephraim Savitt, Kelley J. Sharkey and Mitchell Dinnerstein have been maneuvering to keep Wilson from being sentenced to death since the jury came back Dec. 20 with 10 guilty verdicts on murder, racketeering, carjacking and weapons counts.

Last week, the defense team filed motions to prevent federal prosecutors from highlighting the victims' status as police officers during the penalty phase. The lawyers also asked Judge Nicholas Garaufis to set aside guilty verdicts on murder and carjacking counts, contending that the evidence presented to the jury during trial was "legally insufficient."

During the penalty phase, which is expected to last three weeks, Wilson's lawyers will likely employ a defense known in legal circles as a "geniogram." Jurors will hear Wilson's friends and family members describe him as the survivor of a rough childhood with no father to guide him and a mother who didn't care.

Indeed, Wilson's mother, Cheryl Wilson of Reading, Pa., would seem to be the defense team's best hope enlisting the vote of at least one juror -- all that is needed to spare his life, because a unanimous verdict is required to kill him.

Wilson seems a less sympathetic figure than Grasso, who strangled 81-year-old Leslie Holtz in his St. George home on July 5, 1991.

Jurors heard from an accomplice how Wilson shot the two detectives execution-style from the back seat of a car during a weapons sting operation on Hannah Street in Tompkinsville.

Andrews, Wilson's first victim, never knew what hit him. Nemorin was pleading for his life when Wilson shot him in the back of his head.

Sympathy was reserved for the relatives of Nemorin and Andrews, some of whom broke down and cried when the officers' voices were heard on replays of police surveillance audio from the fateful night of March 10, 2003.


Neither do rap lyrics penned by Wilson that boasted of the cop killings bode well for a life sentence.

There was no hint of remorse, which perhaps explains why several jurors looked directly into Wilson's eyes as the jury foreman pronounced the guilty verdicts.

"Because of the sheer enormity of the crime, because of those who were killed -- they were stellar detectives engaged in their work -- there is no sympathy for those engaged in the defense," said Island defense attorney John Murphy Jr., who trained as a capital defender and handled murder cases in Brooklyn and New Jersey in which the death penalty was withdrawn just prior to trial.

"This is the quintessential death penalty case," Murphy said. "There was no underlying conduct by the victims that precipitated the actions of the defendant in one of the worst scenarios you can imagine. It's the kind of specific conduct that cries out for the death penalty -- and I'm a lifelong opponent of the death penalty."

In Grasso's case, only a few rallied to Cuomo's anti-death penalty standard.

"Grasso was a totally remorseless killer. He had black holes in his eyes," said retired Detective Al Maiorano. Maiorano and his partner, former Detective Mike Morales, arrested the unemployed ex-convict, who collected cans for a living, as he barbecued $30 steaks in his backyard bought with Holtz's stolen Social Security check.

"The old guy was on his knees praying when he was strangled. We got that from Grasso," Maiorano recalled.

The killing of 87-year-old Hilda Johnson in her home in Tulsa, Okla., was pinned on Grasso by a family member, who called Maiorano following Grasso's arrest for the Holtz murder.

Maiorano flew to Oklahoma to visit the doomed killer. The detective was greeted by a dead-man-walking who considered that he had been given an easy way out.

"He knew he was toast," Maiorano said. "He basically didn't want to spend the rest of his life on Death Row."

Wilson may be toast, too, whether or not he knows it.

Said Murphy, "He is death-qualified. ... The jury may very well send a message."

Jeff Harrell is a news reporter for the Advance. He may be reached at

No comments: