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New York’s Last Death Row Convict Spared

BROOKLYN (CN) - Nearly 13 years after his crime, the last New Yorker on death row for murdering two undercover police detectives had his capital punishment overturned a second time because of his intellectual disabilities.

It has been more than half a century since New York executed its last prisoner in 1963, by electric chair in Sing Sing prison.

Roughly 40 years later, the case of Ronell Wilson tested whether a federal prosecution would bring the death sentence back to the Empire State.

In 2003, Wilson shot two detectives, James Nemorin and Rodney Andrews, in the back of the head in a car during a sting operation.

New York's highest court would abolish the state's death penalty law a year later, but execution remained an option for Wilson because federal prosecutors brought charges in the Eastern New York Federal Court.

A federal jury first condemned Wilson to die via lethal injection in 2007, and he had been awaiting his execution on death row in Terra Haute, Indiana, because of federal jurisdiction.

The Second Circuit overturned the sentence three years later because prosecutors cited Wilson's decision to fight his charges at trial as a reason to impose the death penalty.

In 2013, a second jury reinstated the death-penalty verdict, and Judge Nicholas Garaufis rejected Wilson's intellectual-disabilities defense based on his IQ score alone.

The Supreme Court's decision a year later striking down Florida's IQ rule forced Garaufis to factor in other evidence.

After getting a fuller picture of Wilson's intellectual abilities, Garaufis begrudgingly reversed his sentence on Tuesday.

"Having presided over this tragic case for more than a decade, the court quite frankly finds it impossible to muster any sense of sympathy for this defendant," the judge wrote in a 17-page ruling. "Nor does the court lightly disregard the thoughtful judgment of two juries of Wilson's peers who found death to be an appropriate sentence for his crimes. The court also recognizes with great sadness the pain that this decision is likely to cause for the families of James Nemorin and Rodney Andrews. Regardless of one's views on the death penalty, these families have suffered enough."

Garaufis continued, "Ultimately, however, this decision is not based on sympathy for the defendant or for his victims; nor is it based on a particular view of the efficacy or appropriateness of the death penalty generally. Rather, it is based on a careful interpretation of evolving Supreme Court precedent and a sober review of the evidence."

The judge noted that the experts "actually agreed on more than one might expect" about Wilson's intellectual disabilities.

"In fact, all six experts who testified on this issue determined that Wilson had deficits, in some cases significant, in various areas of adaptive functioning," he wrote.

Wilson's intellectual disabilities began at the age of 6, when he was hospitalized for psychiatric treatment and considered to be a suicide risk, according to court records.

The federal government has only executed three prisoners since 1963, though 60 remain on federal death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Garaufis noted that some of these prisoners may have "colorable claims of intellectual disability."

David Stern, who represents Wilson for Rothman, Schneider, Soloway & Stern PC, hoped that the judge's "wonderful decision" would help others like his client.

"It would be a disgrace if we executed people who were intellectually disabled, that's for sure," he said in a phone interview.

A spokeswoman for the Eastern New York U.S. Attorney's office declined to comment on whether it would appeal the ruling.

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