NEW YORK – An appeals court tossed out the first federal death sentence given in New York in five decades on Wednesday, finding that prosecutors improperly advised a jury after it convicted a man of killing two undercover police detectives who were posing as gun buyers.
The 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan nixed the death sentence given to Ronell Wilson in March 2007 after concluding that prosecutors made legal errors during the penalty phase of the trial that were not corrected by the judge in his instructions to jurors in Brooklyn.
The appeals court upheld the conviction of Wilson in the March 10, 2003, robbery and murder of Detectives James Nemorin and Rodney Andrews on Staten Island. Wilson was caught two days after the killings in Brooklyn, where arresting officers found rap lyrics he had written that appeared to describe the murder, the appeals court noted.
“We’re reviewing the decision and considering our options,” said Robert Nardoza, a spokesman for federal prosecutors. Lawyers for Wilson did not immediately return phone messages seeking comment.
Unless the ruling is appealed further, the case will be returned to a lower court judge, who will preside over a new death penalty phase in which jurors weigh aggravating and mitigating factors in deciding whether Wilson should be sentenced to death.
The 2nd Circuit said it was vacating the death sentences because prosecutors violated Wilson’s Constitutional rights when they argued to the jury that Wilson failed to accept responsibility for his crime because he went to trial. The appeals court said it was unconstitutional to “disallow the death penalty for those who plead guilty but allow it for those who exercise their right to a trial.”
He was the city’s first federal defendant to receive a death sentence penalty since 1954, when it was imposed on a bank robber who killed an FBI agent.