CURRENT ISSUE | SUBSCRIBE | ADVERTISE | WRITE TO US | CORNELL AUTHORS | PAST ISSUES

MAR./APR. 2005 VOLUME 107 NUMBER 5

A serial killer's pursuit of death becomes a case study in American justice.

By David Dudley and Brad Herzog

During the eighteen years that Michael Ross has lived on death row, he has spent many hours punching out letters and articles on a typewriter. For years he put together a monthly newsletter that was mailed to a list of correspondents and, later, published on the Web. He wrote about his prison routine-- up early listening to National Public Radio, a brisk one-hour morning walk to keep his weight down, afternoons naps, and some TV after dinner on the small color set his father bought him. He wrote about the Catholic faith he found in prison, his hours of daily prayer, the peace he felt reflecting on the Stations of the Cross. He wrote, bemusedly at times, about the twists and turns of his case, a two-decade odyssey through the state and federal courts that featured several appeals, an overturned capital sentence, two penalty phase hearings separated by thirteen years, another sentence of death, and--in the weeks leading up to his scheduled execution this January--a bewildering flurry of last-minute motions filed on his behalf by religious groups, public defenders, death penalty foes, and his own father.Most of all, he wrote about himself, and what he did.

Between May 1981, when he graduated from Cornell, and June 1984, when a Connecticut police investigator knocked on his door, Ross killed eight young women, raping seven of them. before strangling them. The youngest victims were fourteen years old. He hid the bodies in woods and corn fields and ravines; the last was found entombed in a stone wall. "I'm the worst of the worst," he proclaimed in an article he wrote in 1996, "a man who has raped and murdered eight women, assaulted several others, and stalked and frightened many more. And when I am finally executed, the vast majority of the people of this state will celebrate my death."

Over the course of one six-day period this January, Ross received five scheduled execution dates. He survived them all. At one point, on the morning of January 29, Ross had little more than an hour to live when his lawyer suddenly announced that new evidence had cast doubt on his client's mental competency. The execution was stayed. On February 10, a state judge set a new execution date of May 11, insuring that the debate over whether Ross should die for his crimes will indeed go on. But for legal scholars and experts on both sides of the capital punishment divide, the protracted history of the Ross case illustrates a larger issue--the knotty ethical contradictions at the heart of the right to kill.

Ross was diagnosed by several psychiatrists as a sexual sadist, afflicted with a severe clinical paraphilia that left him with a powerful-- perhaps uncontrollable--urge to inflict suffering for pleasure. While in prison, he has attempted suicide several times and often wrote with regret how he had failed to kill himself while an undergraduate. In 1995, he became a death penalty "volunteer," agreeing to waive further appeals and even hiring an attorney to speed his execution. Publicly, he claimed that he wanted to spare the families of his victims the further suffering that the appeals process would bring. But his former public defenders, citing "death row syndrome," argued that the extreme social isolation of his extended incarceration had essentially made Ross psychologically unable to make his own legal decisions.

As the legal drama over Ross's right to die continues to play out, the foes and advocates of capital punishment in America watch closely. Some argue that the lethal injection of a man with a serious psychological disorder and a history of attempts on his own life would amount to state-assisted suicide. But others--prosecutors, victims' families, and Ross himself--tell a very different story: deciding to die is the only sane thing a man like Michael Ross could do.

The reports were all similar. Someone was jumping out of the bushes, trying to grab women in the woods around Beebe Lake. A girl who was visiting campus reported a rape. Another rape was attempted near the observatory. And then, on the night of May 12, 1981, a young graduate student didn't come home, and the landlady at her rooming house called the police. A few days later, the Ithaca Journal printed a missing persons notice with a small photograph of Dzung Ngoc Tu, who was last seen reading a newspaper in Warren Hall.

Dzung had emigrated from Vietnam to America when she was ten years old. Her father, an economist, took a job with the World Bank, and in the summer of 1969 her family left the war-ravaged country for Bethesda, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C."My parents were looking for a better life for their children, as opposed to an uncertain future in the old country," recalls Dzung's older brother, Lan Manh Tu, now a real estate appraiser in the Annapolis area. Dzung flourished in her new life. She learned English rapidly, became an honors student at Walt Whitman High School, and enrolled at Vassar College in pursuit of an economics degree. She was a year younger than most of her classmates, and so tiny--barely five feet tall and ninety-five pounds-- that friends felt a motherly affection for her. "But there was a spine of steel in her, too," recalls Victoria Balfour, her Vassar roommate in 1973–74. "Dzung could take care of herself."At Cornell, Dzung was finishing her first year in the agricultural economics graduate program; her plan was to return to Vietnam and use her degree to help spur development.

Dzung was "a model daughter and sister," says Lan. She sponsored orphaned children in Africa, joined Ithaca's Big Brother/Big Sister program, and helped kids with terminal cancer as a hospital volunteer. "One thing I wanted people to know about her was that she wasn't just some tragic victim," he says. "Her life was really good up until the night of her death."

Dzung Ngoc Tu's body was discovered on May 17 in Fall Creek Gorge, caught on rocks beneath rain-swollen Beebe Falls.Her skull was fractured, and investigators first suspected that she had jumped from the Thurston Avenue bridge. But she left no suicide note, and friends, colleagues, and family members said there were no signs that she had been depressed. "It seemed very unlike her," recalls Steve Payne,MBA '82, who was head resident at Cascadilla Hall when Dzung roomed there during fall semester. "She was friendly, outgoing. She seemed like a very happy person."

Within days, says Cornell Police senior investigator Scott Hamilton, suspicions turned elsewhere. "She didn't fit the classic profile of a student that would commit suicide, and yet we didn't uncover any evidence that she had any particular enemies," says Hamilton, who was a patrolman with what was then called Cornell Public Safety. Former Tompkins County district attorney Joseph Joch '66 announced on May 23 that foul play was likely, and Dzung's boyfriend was briefly named as a suspect and retained an attorney, according to an Ithaca Journal report. An autopsy was ordered, but after a week in fast-flowing water, the body was in poor condition. "We saw no physical evidence of rape," Joch recalls. "For all practical purposes, it looked like she was just thrown over the bridge."

On campus, edgy students suspected that Dzung's death was linked to the recent campus rape incidents, and Hamilton says that his department also looked, in vain, for a link. "We had a gut feeling something wasn't right," he says, "but I can't go to court on my gut feelings."Meanwhile, the Class of 1981 graduated, the campus emptied, and the investigation foundered. No further rapes were reported over the summer, and the case faded from the headlines. "After seven months it was pretty much dead in the water," Joch says. "There were no leads left to follow.We were stumped."

In 1982, Joch left the DA's office to open a private practice. For Cornell, Dzung Ngoc Tu remained, officially, an "unintended death." At no point in the investigation had Michael Ross ever surfaced as a suspect, Hamilton says. "There wasn't anyone saying, ‘Look, we should look at this guy, because we've had complaints against him before.' Nothing." In the spring of 1981 Ross had been an undergraduate, a senior, with no personal connection to Dzung beyond the fact that they were both studying the same field. Years later, authorities would learn that Ross had been working at a student job grading papers in Warren Hall on the night she disappeared. "It was a total shot in the dark--you could have talked to everyone on campus," Joch says. "This fellow just fell between the cracks."

It would be years before Ross's name was officially linked to Dzung Ngoc Tu's death. In 1987, he confessed to a prison psychiatrist that, during his senior year at Cornell, he had raped a Vietnamese girl and tossed her body off the Triphammer footbridge. By then,Michael Ross had been sitting in a Connecticut prison for three years, a confessed serial killer on trial for six other murders.

The life story that emerged in that trial, as told by the psychiatrists, family members, and witnesses that Ross's defense team assembled, was a mix of middle-class normalcy and mental instability. Born Michael Bruce Ross on July 26, 1959, he grew up on a chicken farm in Brooklyn, Connecticut, ten miles from the Rhode Island border.His mother, Pat, became pregnant when she was in high school, leading to an unwanted marriage with the baby's father, Dan Ross. Five years later, after giving birth three more times and undergoing two abortions, Pat Ross abandoned the family, only to be retrieved and twice institutionalized. According to Michael, he absorbed most of his mother's emotional abuse.When it was time to wring the necks of malformed chicks or under-producing hens on the farm, she wouldn't allow her other children to perform the disturbing chore. "Let Michael do it," she would say.

Nevertheless, Ross excelled in his studies, graduating sixteenth in his class in high school, and enrolled in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 1977. He joined the Future Farmers of America and the Alpha Zeta fraternity, and began dating a woman in the ROTC program.

Marc Baase '81, a transfer student who roomed with Ross at Alpha Zeta when both were sophomores, remembers him as welcoming and friendly, if somewhat impenetrable."He kind of followed his own drum and went his own way," says Baase, now a floral designer in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Ross didn't form close friendships with his fraternity brothers, Baase says, in part because he spent most of his time with a succession of girlfriends. "There was always a certain obsession on his part regarding women," he says. "That seemed to be such a big issue, a constant topic--needing a woman, needing to have a girlfriend. He would be obsessed about the relationship."

According to Ross's account, at some point during his undergraduate days the volatile mix of person, place, and proclivity exploded into increasingly violent sexual assaults. First came the stalking--he would follow women, getting a thrill out of sensing their fear. Later, at least one rape and an attempted assault. Finally, weeks from graduation, his encounter with Dzung Ngoc Tu.

After leaving Cornell, Ross embarked on a three-year string of attempted rapes and strangulation killings. Twice, he was arrested--first in Illinois when he dragged a teenaged girl into the woods but was interrupted by police, then in Ohio when a pregnant off-duty police officer managed to fight off his attack. In both cases his punishment was light, and Ross successfully hid his compulsion from employers, family members, and girlfriends.

In court, a parade of psychiatrists testified about the tangled roots of Ross's criminal pathology. There was evidence that he was sexually molested as a child by an uncle, and that he in turn molested two neighborhood girls. Dr. Fred Berlin, the well-known co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorder Clinic and a defense expert at Ross's 1987 trial, testified that Ross was afflicted with sexual sadism, a mental disorder that involves deriving sexual excitement from the pain and suffering of others. The state's own psychiatrist agreed--reluctantly--that Ross was mentally ill; in a private letter to prosecutors, Dr. Robert Miller wrote, "I can't see how I could testify against psychopathology playing a sufficient role in defendant's behavior."

Whether he was criminally insane was a moot point, because Ross had pled guilty. But under Connecticut law at the time, evidence of mental illness had to be considered as a mitigating factor in sentencing, precluding the death penalty.Miller's letter was never shown to the jury, so Ross's death sentence was overturned by the Connecticut Supreme Court in 1994 and a new sentencing hearing was held in 2000. After nine days of jury deliberation, Ross again received the death penalty.

In his writings, Ross has always maintained he was powerless in the face of "a mental illness that drove me to rape and kill" and "made me physically unable to control my actions." Soon after his imprisonment, Ross began receiving hormone injections to reduce his testosterone level, quieting his violent urges and, he says, bringing him the clarity to understand the gravity of his crimes. But prosecutors successfully argued that the specifics of Ross's killings--he carefully chose his victims, concealed evidence of the crimes, and managed to evade authorities for years--paint a portrait of a cunning criminal who strangled his victims to avoid leaving witnesses.

According to John Blume, a professor at the Law school and co-founder of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, Ross's conviction highlights the perils of relying on a psychological testimony. "The thing that's disturbing," he says, "is that even when the experts all say your client is insane, juries will still reject it." Even though psychiatrists say an individual such as Ross might understand the difference between right and wrong and still be unable to stop the behavior, the notion is an increasingly hard sell for most juries, who tend to rely on the "policeman at the elbow" test: would the defendant have committed the crime even if a policeman had been standing next to him?

Michael Malchik, the Connecticut state police investigator who tracked Ross down in 1984 and has followed the case ever since, recalls how prosecutors twice made short work of the defense's psychological experts. "Could he control himself? Well, two juries rejected that,"Malchik says. "As the state's attorney said at the trial, if Ross was so out of control, why didn't he just rape the girl in between the yellow lines of Route 12? He made it simple for the juries to understand."

Malchik's capture of Ross made the detective a hero in Connecticut. After witnesses recalled seeing a thin, bespectacled Caucasian in a blue Toyota turn around and follow a local teenager on the day she disappeared, Malchik compiled a list of several thousand blue Toyotas and found a man whose apartment was in the geographic center of the area where victims had been discovered. After hours of questioning, Ross, then working as a door-to-door insurance salesman, confessed to the murder and then quickly admitted killing five others. He later volunteered to lead police to the crime scenes. But Ross never mentioned two murders he committed in New York State: the Dzung Ngoc Tu slaying at Cornell, and the March 1982 killing of sixteen-year-old Paula Perrera in the Hudson Valley town of Wallkill.

To Malchik, that omission remains one of the enduring curiosities of the case, and, for him, the key to understanding Ross's state of mind. "It's a mystery to me to this day, but it's typical of him," he says. "Here he is, confessing to six murders, and he thought enough ahead not to tell us about the New York ones. Looking back at it, it's obvious he was thinking of something.He was always thinking two steps ahead. He's got his own agenda, but I couldn't for the life of me tell you what it is."

Michael Ross lived one floor below Kathy Jaeger '81 in U-Hall 4 during their freshman year. She recalls a conversation they had about the possibility of sharing a ride back to their home state of Connecticut, but nothing ever came of it. After college, she lost track of him. She rediscovered her old classmate in a news story about his arrest in 1984.

Although she was a nutrition major in the College of Human Ecology, Jaeger worked mostly as a counselor, seeking to help AIDS sufferers, the families of homicide victims, and others in distress. After she completed an Episcopal chaplain residency and became proficient in the alternative healing treatment of Reiki, she recognized her work as a ministry-- God's calling. In December 1996, she felt called to Michael Ross.

It started with a story called "It's Time for Me to Die" that Ross published in the Hartford Courant, explaining his decision to accept the death penalty. Jaeger recognized the byline and tossed the newspaper aside."But I kept getting these nudges from God to keep thinking about him and what it must be like to be in prison during the holidays," she says. A few weeks later, Jaeger spent a Sunday morning at a church she hadn't visited before. The scripture that day came from Matthew 25: I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink . . . . I was in prison and you came to me. One week before Christmas, she wrote Ross a note, telling him she remembered him from Cornell and that he was in her thoughts during the holidays.He received it on Christmas Eve."He wrote back," Jaeger says, "and said, essentially, ‘Thank you for your support. But I've done some really horrible things, and you don't want to know me.' "

But they continued to correspond, which led to weekly telephone conversations and then prison visits. "Somehow," Ross wrote in his newsletter four years later, "she was able to breach my defenses and was able to touch my soul as no one else ever has."He called Jaeger "the most important woman in my life" and claimed the two had fallen in love. "If I were a free man, I would ask her to marry me."

Jaeger says that Ross's account isn't entirely accurate; she describes her role as "pastoral advocate." They pray together, read psalms, and perform devotions."Ministry can be incredibly intimate. . . . I feel like my involvement with him was sort of like a mother, a sister, and even, to some extent, a girlfriend all rolled up in one."

When Jaeger entered Ross's life, his legal case had entered a bizarre new stage.After his original death sentence was overturned in 1994, the court ordered a new penalty hearing, but Ross responded by dismissing his public defenders. Essentially acting as his own attorney, Ross worked with prosecutor C. Robert Satti to craft an extraordinary "death pact" allowing imposition of the death penalty without a penalty hearing. "Please allow me to go into the courtroom . . . to accept the death penalty as punishment for my actions," he wrote in a letter to Satti. "I'm not asking you to do this for me, but for the families involved, who do not deserve to suffer further and who, in some small way, might gain a sense of peace of mind by these actions and my execution." A judge rejected the agreement in 1998, balking at "shortcuts on procedure where an individual's life hangs in the balance." An angry Ross rehired his defenders, reverting to the claim that his crimes were the product of his mental illness. After he was resentenced to death and had exhausted his mandatory appeals, Ross again fired his lawyers and waived further appeals.

Jaeger says that Ross's decision to accept death is a sincere attempt to provide closure for the families of his victims by stopping the legal process."He told me, ‘You know I don't want to do this. But I have to,' " she says. "He just really felt anguish over what he had done--really, really harsh anguish and self-loathing. Contrary to media reports, he doesn't want to die. He wishes that the justice system got it right years ago and gave him life sentences, because he does have mental illness. And the sad thing is, if they had done that, the families of his victims wouldn't have been re-victimized [by the ongoing appeals]. Michael is trying, in essence, to save them from any more of that."

Ross attempted suicide in prison at least twice, in 1998 and 2003.His former public defenders,who continue to file motions on his behalf, and others who have been fighting his execution argue that, high-minded pronouncements to the contrary, Ross is simply trying to get the State of Connecticut to expedite the process. The heart of the recent legal battle was whether a suicidal man is mentally competent enough to rationally choose death over life.

In a prison interview last December with forensic psychiatrist Dr.Michael Norko, Ross addressed the issue directly. "That's what the whole thing comes down to: Do I have the right to do this? And does it make me incompetent because I want to do it?" The videotaped interview reveals him as lucid, articulate, and righteously indignant on the topic of his own mental state."It's not state-assisted suicide. It's not that I'm tired of living on death row. . . . It's because these people have a right to have an end to this horror that's been going on for twenty years. And I've got, finally, the opportunity to be able to do that. Does that make me incompetent?"

At a December hearing, Norko testified that Ross was indeed competent, and the state Supreme Court agreed. But on January 29--hours after Ross's execution was stayed--Norko was given additional evidence, including a private letter from 1998 in which Ross admitted that he "played on the noble cause of protecting the families of my victims" in order to expedite his own death. Norko quickly signed an affidavit saying that he needed to revisit his earlier assessment. Two weeks later, a state judge appointed a special counsel and ordered yet another hearing to decide once and for all whether Ross is mentally fit enough to choose death.

About one in every eight prisoners executed in the U.S. is a so-called volunteer who, like Ross, has made a decision to stop all efforts to extend their life. Legally, the prisoner must prove capable of understanding that decision, but the issue is framed so broadly that few agree on exactly what that means. "The truth is, that discussion is largely polemical," says Blume, who has just finished a study of death row volunteerism for the Michigan Law Review. "Most people who call it state-assisted suicide are against the death penalty in all circumstances, and most who say that he's just accepting the justice of his punishment are strong death penalty supporters. The main question is, is it really suicide or not? So let's look at these people and compare them to people who actually commit suicide."

Blume's study looked at both death row volunteers and noncriminal suicidal individuals outside of prison.He found the two populations strikingly similar--"mostly white men with a history of mental illness and substance abuse." Studies have noted that the brain chemistries of people with suicidal and homicidal tendencies share common factors, such as abnormal serotonin levels. "We may discover," he says, "that the two urges are closely linked." Currently, standards of mental competency ask only if the inmate is able to rationally understand what they're doing, not probe into why. Blume insists that psychological motivation has to become a factor. "Then the question becomes, if their motivation is actually to end their own life, should we allow it? We wouldn't allow anyone else to do it. Is there some kind of affirmative action program for death row inmates?"

The other significant issue raised in the last-minute legal scrum for Ross's life centers around the use of death penalty syndrome as an argument for incompetency. The idea itself, Blume notes, isn't new: "From the 1970s on there have been mental health experts saying that the conditions of confinement where these people are kept can make them crazy." Most death rows in the United States use facilities originally designed for short-term discipline, not long-term incarceration. But the marathon appeals process in capital cases means that inmates can live in near-total isolation for decades. "It's understood that if you confine people to their cells twenty-three hours a day," Blume says, "a certain number will suffer psychic harm."

Nationally, the death penalty is on a three-year wane. Fifty-nine people were put to death in 2004, down from ninety-eight in 1999. The innovation of DNA evidence and the wave of death row exonerations that made headlines in the 1990s have made both prosecutors and juries more selective in their enthusiasm for capital punishment. Little wonder, then, that capital punishment opponents accuse states of making their facilities as intolerable as possible. If a judge finds that death row syndrome contributed to Ross's incompetency, death penalty opponents would conceivably have a powerful new tool for future legal maneuvers.

Robert Nave is the Connecticut death penalty coordinator for Amnesty International and the point-man for the human rights organization's protest of Ross's execution.He was contacted by Ross in 2000, visited him in prison fifteen times in the last year, and was at one time selected by Ross as one of his three execution witnesses. Ross's decision to stop fighting his execution,Nave believes, is based not on his concern for the victims' families, but on his determination to rehabilitate his own image: Ross wants to be remembered as a martyr for capital punishment.

"His sense of self-importance--the narcissism in him--is unbelievably exaggerated,"Nave says.He calls Ross "an Academy- Award-caliber actor" who believes that his public expressions of remorse and selfless embrace of execution will ultimately lead to the abolition of the death penalty itself.

In one sense, Ross is correct--the struggle for his death in court this winter was indeed accompanied by an informal public referendum on capital punishment on the streets and airwaves of New England. Even as the countdown to lethal injection continued, lawmakers debated a proposed repeal of Connecticut's death penalty legislation. But Ross may be gravely mistaken about his role in the discussion. One state poll showed that while 59 percent of residents supported the death penalty, the number jumped to 70 percent if applied specifically to Michael Ross. "What's happened is that he's realized that, in Connecticut, we hate him,"Nave says. "For years, legislators have stumped on the promise that they will kill Michael Ross."

Is Ross's remorse sincere? "Absolutely," says Nave. "But he's only remorseful because people hate him. That's what always reduced him to tears." Beyond that, Nave resists speculating on the man and what drives him. "I've envisioned him as a ball of yarn--there's a single string that runs through it, but its very tangled up and it's very tight."

The personal argument for sparing Ross's life, Nave admits, is a difficult one to make; he screens his telephone calls these days and says that "the hate mail I get is amazing."He prefers to take a broad view: the tortured path to this man's execution merely highlights the folly of attempting to fairly administer an inherently unfair punishment. "The Ross case points out the flaws in the death penalty better than anything else," he says. "When the most notorious serial killer in Connecticut history can't get litigated properly, you've got a system that just doesn't work."

On the bitterly cold night of January 29, when Ross's execution appeared imminent, Nave dutifully organized some 300 protesters to stand vigil outside Osborne Correctional. But his sympathies, he says, were never with the man inside. "I wish," he says, "it could be anyone but him."

Executioner's Song Attorney John Blume puts the death penalty on trial.

"Capital trials are a war between two narratives," says Law school professor John Blume. "The prosecutor usually has a very simple narrative--they try to demonize the defendant. On the defense side, we try to create a counter-narrative. Our job is to humanize them. Nobody is a total monster."

Blume is the director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, founded with colleagues Sheri Lynn Johnson and Stephen Garvey in 1996 to encourage empirical research on capital punishment, sponsor legal symposia, and give law students the chance to work on actual death row cases. A practicing defense attorney in South Carolina, Blume is a veteran of many capital trials in his home state. When he isn't defending death row inmates, he's singing about them: he formed a rock band with three other South Carolina defense lawyers (plus a local florist on drums), writing and performing original tunes inspired by the hard-luck sagas of Blume's clients. They're called the Reprieves.

A former Yale Divinity School student, Blume switched to law and found himself drawn by the challenge of working on capital trials. His own opposition to the death penalty, he notes, only hardened when he saw the legal process up close. "After seeing the system in action, I think the death penalty is a punishment that is impossible for human beings to administer in a fair manner." The Death Penalty Project's research over the past several years details some of these statistical vagaries. A 2004 study that Blume coauthored with fellow professors Martin Wells and Theodore Eisenberg revealed a "racial hierarchy" of victim and defendant: African Americans who kill whites, for example, are more likely to be put to death than whites who kill whites or blacks who kill blacks. The study punctured some common death penalty assumptions (whites are actually statistically over-represented on death row, in part because prosecutors rarely seek death for black-on-black killings) and refined others (Nevada, not Texas, is the most "death prone" state, based on frequency of sentencing per murder). Perhaps the most widely held belief about the death penalty--that it discourages would-be murderers from committing crimes--is also the most easily debunked. "There's a schizophrenia about why we retain the death penalty," Blume says. "If you talk to people on the street, they'll say it's because it's a deterrent. But every single study that's ever been done says it's not." Sometimes, Blume says, death penalty advocates ask him if he'd support capital punishment if the system were fixed--if innocent people were never put to death and the law was applied in a truly fair and balanced way to every defendant. He's never been able to come up with an answer. "That's like asking me what I'd do if I heard that an amoeba can play the piano," Blume says. "You're asking me to put myself in a place that I know doesn't exist."

Return to top of page

Contact Us