A federal appeals court today tossed out the death sentence against a cop-killer convicted in the execution-style murders of two undercover detectives on Staten Island during a gun buy-and-bust operation in 2003.
In a split decision, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that prosecutors violated Ronell Wilson's constitutional rights by attacking his claims of remorse during the penalty phase of his trial for the cold-blooded killings of Detectives Rodney Andrews and James Nemorin.
"These arguments were potent -- no juror found that Wilson accepted responsibility or showed remorse, and every juror found that Wilson presented a risk of future dangerousness," Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs wrote for the 2-to-1 majority.
"On these facts, it is hard to see how the government can prove that these errors were harmless. Indeed, the government’s emphasis on these arguments during summation suggests they were not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt."
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Debra Ann Livingston said it was "entirely proper" for the prosecution to question the credibility of Wilson's unsworn apology "because it came only when Wilson faced punishment for his crime."
"It is both natural and irresistible for a jury, in evaluating the sincerity of a statement of contrition, to note when it comes only at the point a defendant is seeking to avoid the maximum penalty and when it is utterly devoid of corroboration," she wrote.
All three judges upheld Wilson's conviction, and he was ordered back to court for a new penalty phase.
A spokesman said Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch "will carefully review this decision and consider options."
Wilson's defense lawyers didn't immediately return calls for comment.
A NYPD spokesman said Commissioner Raymond Kelly "believes that the murder of a police officer is an attack on society itself and should be punished with the death penalty."
"There were no circumstances to suggest otherwise in the murders of Detectives Andrews and Nemorin, which were beyond heinous, cold-blooded executions."