A jury can consider the future dangerousness of a man convicted of murdering two police officers when it decides whether he should get the death penalty even though his only other possible sentence is life without parole, a Brooklyn federal judge has ruled.
Eastern District Judge Nicholas Garaufis (See Profile) ruled on Feb. 15 in People v. Wilson, 04-CR-1016, that, while the defendant, Ronell Wilson, may move to exclude specific evidence of future dangerousness from consideration, he is not entitled to a "blanket ruling" excluding all such evidence.
Wilson had argued that, because the only alternative to a death sentence was life in a maximum security prison without any possibility of release, the only danger he could pose would be to other inmates. He argued that, because violence within prisons is very rare and unpredictable, a jury would not be qualified to make a determination about his future dangerousness.
Wilson was convicted after a 2006 jury trial of the murder of NYPD Detectives James Nemorin and Rodney Andrews. The jury voted for Wilson to be sentenced to death. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, while affirming the conviction, vacated the death penalty determination in 2010 (NYLJ, July 1, 2010). It found that prosecutors had made statements to the jury that undermined Wilson's constitutional rights, and remanded the case for resentencing.
On remand, Wilson requested a hearing on whether he was mildly retarded and thus not eligible for the death penalty. Garaufis ruled that he was not retarded earlier this month (NYLJ, Feb. 8).
Wilson also moved to strike "future dangerousness" as an aggravating factor to be considered on remand. In support of the motion, he offered studies he said showed that jurors and prosecutors could not reliably predict which prison inmates would prove dangerous.
Garaufis denied that motion, citing the U.S. Supreme Court's 1994 decision in Simmons v. South Carolina, 512 U.S. 154, which held that, if the only alternative to a death sentence is life without parole, the jury must be informed of that fact. However, Garaufis noted, the Supreme Court wrote that "the fact that a defendant is parole ineligible does not prevent the State from arguing that the defendant poses a future danger," including to other inmates or prison staff.
"This statement was in dicta, but it further elucidates the Court's broad approval of jury consideration of a capital defendant's future dangerousness, including with respect to defendants facing no prospect of release," Garaufis wrote.
Furthermore, Garaufis said, even if it were impossible to predict Wilson's future dangerousness in prison, he might still be able to arrange for others to do harm outside of prison. The judge noted that prosecutors believe Wilson is a high-ranking member of the Bloods gang, lending weight to this possibility.
"Moreover, even when it comes to an inmate's ability to directly cause harm within the prison, Wilson's studies suggest that predictions about a defendant's future dangerousness are unreliable, but not necessarily impossible," Garaufis said.