Ronnell Wilson is not mentally retarded and can once again appear before a jury that will decide whether he should be executed for the murder of two undercover police officers on Staten Island in 2003, a federal judge ruled yesterday.
Eastern District Judge Nicholas Garaufis (See Profile) rejected claims by lawyers for Wilson that he was mildly retarded and should be spared capital punishment pursuant to Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002).
Wilson was convicted in 2006 by a jury in Brooklyn federal court of the execution-style murder of NYPD Detectives James Nemorin and Rodney Andrews. The jury went on to vote that he be put to death and Garaufis imposed the penalty in 2007.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated the capital punishment verdict on constitutional grounds and remanded to Garaufis for a retrial on the penalty phase.
On remand, Wilson requested a pretrial hearing on whether he was mentally retarded and thus ineligible for a death sentence under the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and the Federal Death Penalty Act (FDPA).
Garaufis held a nine-day hearing in December 2012 under Atkins, where the Supreme Court held that the execution of mentally retarded individuals was cruel and unusual punishment. At the hearing, believed to be the first of its kind in federal court in New York, dueling experts gave contrary opinions on Wilson's intellectual skills and abilities (NYLJ, Dec. 6, 2012).
Yesterday, Garaufis said in United States v. Wilson, 04-CR-1016, "Wilson has not satisfied the burden of proving that he more likely than not suffers from significantly subaverage intellectual functioning.
"The court holds that Wilson is not mentally retarded, and was not mentally retarded at the time of the crime," the judge said. "This does not mean that he will receiveor deserves to receivethe death penalty, but only that any such penalty would not violate the Federal Death Penalty Act or the Eighth Amendment."
The Atkins court based its decision on several factors, including whether the execution of mentally retarded defendants would serve the deterrence or retribution justifications for capital punishment, whether there was an increased possibility for false confessions and, in the words of the Supreme Court, "the lesser ability of mentally retarded defendants to make a persuasive showing of mitigation."
But Garaufis said, "Neither the FDPA nor Atkins mandates a particular definition of mental retardation," and he said he was free to consider New York state's law, which "ultimately leads the court to rely primarily upon clinical definitions of the term," in conjunction with expert opinion.