(CN) – The 2nd Circuit on Thursday overturned the death sentence of a Staten Island man who was convicted of killing two undercover police detectives posing as gun buyers.
The case of Ronell Wilson, now 28, was the first successful federal capital punishment prosecution in New York in more than 50 years, according to The New York Times.
A federal jury sentenced him to death by lethal injection in 2007 for shooting two detectives, James V. Nemorin and Rodney J. Andrews, in the back of the head in a car.
The Manhattan-based federal appeals panel left Wilson’s conviction intact, but voted 2-1 to overturn his death sentence.
The majority said two of the government’s arguments during the penalty phase violated Wilson’s constitutional rights. Prosecutors had linked Wilson’s decisions not to plead guilty or take the stand to a purported lack of remorse and refusal to accept responsibility for the killings.
“Wilson’s constitutionally protected decision to go to trial was cited as a reason to sentence him to death, and thus to ‘enhance’ what would otherwise be a life sentence,” Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs wrote.
Prosecutors had also told jurors that “[t]he path for that witness stand has never been blocked to Mr. Wilson.”
“It is settled that prosecutors may not comment adversely on a defendant’s invocation of his Fifth Amendment privilege not to testify,” Jacobs wrote.
Judge Debra Ann Livingston voted to uphold the conviction, but disagreed that any rights had been violated during sentencing.
The case will either go back to a new jury for resentencing or Wilson could be automatically sentenced to life in prison if prosecutors drop the death sentence.
Law enforcement officials expressed shock at the ruling.
“Two judges out of the three have ruled in favor of a ruthless, remorseless killer of two undercover police officers,” said Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives Endowment Association.