The Urge to Hurt
by Michael Ross
My name is Michael Ross. I'm a condemned man on Connecticut's death row. When most people think of death row inmates, I'm the one they think of. I'm the worst of the worst, a serial killer who is responsible for the rape and murder of eight women in three different states, who has assaulted several other women, and who has stalked and frightened many more. I have never denied what I did and fully confessed to my crimes. The only issue in my case, from the very beginning, has been my mental condition. For years I have been trying to prove that I suffer from a mental illness that drove me to rape and kill, and that this mental illness made me physically unable to control my actions. I have met with little success.
So here I sit on death row, waiting for the judicial system to complete the tedious process which will in all likelihood result in my eventual execution. And when I am finally executed, many people will celebrate my death. Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I can envision the hundreds of people who will likely gather outside the prison gates on the night of my execution. I can see them waving placards, drinking and rejoicing, and I can hear their cheers as my death is officially announced.
Who is Michael Ross? And what could motivate a clearly intelligent individual, a Cornell University graduate, to commit such horrendous crimes? As you might expect, I have been examined by a multitude of psychiatric experts since my initial arrest in June 1984. All of them, including the state's own expert psychiatric witness, diagnosed me as suffering from a paraphiliac mental disorder called "sexual sadism" -- a mental illness that, in the experts' words, resulted in my compulsion "to perpetrate violent sexual activity in a repetitive way." These experts also agreed that my criminal conduct was the direct result of uncontrollable sexual impulses that were caused by my mental illness. The state's only hope of obtaining a conviction and death sentence was to muddy the waters and to inflame the jury's passions and emotions so they would ignore any evidence of psychological impairment. In my particular case, given the heinousness of the crimes, this was quite easy to do, and the state succeeded in obtaining convictions and multiple death sentences.
What exactly is a paraphiliac mental disorder? It is very difficult to explain and even more difficult to understand it fully. I'm not even sure that I completely understand this disease, and for a very long time now I have been trying to understand what has been going in my head.
I was plagued by repetitive thoughts, urges, and fantasies about the degradation, rape, and murder of women. I couldn't get them out of my mind. These unwanted thoughts and urges filled my mind when I was awake. They were in my dreams when I slept. And the urges were insatiable. Imagine trying to control such urges, day by day, hour by hour. And try to imagine the self-hatred, loathing, and abhorrence I developed towards myself when I ultimately failed.
The best way for someone who is not plagued with this problem to understand the obsessive and repetitive nature of my thoughts, urges, and fantasies is to remember a time when you had a song or some catchy tune stuck in your mind, playing over and over and over again, driving you crazy. Even if you like the melody, its constant repetition, over and over and over again, becomes more than merely annoying. When this happens, the harder you try to push the melody out of your mind, the louder and more persistent it becomes, driving you almost to the point of madness. Now replace that sweet, little melody with noxious thoughts of physically and mentally degrading a woman, of raping her, and of strangling her -- now you can begin to understand what I had running wild in my head. And I think you can believe me when I say that it is not something that I wanted in my head.
The urge to hurt women could come over me at any time, and at any place. Powerful, sometimes irresistible urges that well up for no apparent reason and without warning. Even after my arrest, while facing capital charges, the urges continued. I remember one day being transported back to the county jail from a court appearance just prior to my trial. I was in the back of the Sheriff's van in full restraints -- handcuffs, leg-irons, and a belly-chain -- when we passed a young woman walking along a wooded stretch of road. I cannot begin to describe adequately the intensity of the urges that enveloped me that day. I wanted ... no, I had to get out of that van and go after her. The situation was ludicrous. There I was, in the back of a Sheriff's van on my way back to jail, and all that I could think about was how badly I wanted to get hold of her. Later, back in my cell, I masturbated to a fantasy about what would have happened if I had gotten hold of her.
Even after I was sentenced to death and living on death row, the urges persisted. One day I was being escorted from the mental health unit back to my cell after seeing a psychiatrist. There is a small secluded stairwell that leads from the unit back to the main corridor. I was being escorted, without restraints, by a young, petite, female correctional officer. When I got to the stairwell, I suddenly felt this overwhelming desire to hurt her. I knew that I had to get out of that stairwell, and I ran up the stairs into the hallway. I'll never forget how she shouted at me and threatened to write me a disciplinary report -- she didn't have a clue as to what was going on. She never knew how badly I wanted to hurt her that day. She never knew how close I came to attacking her, possibly even killing her.
You would think that being sentenced to death and living on death row would curb such thoughts and urges. But my illness defies rationality. I am fortunate to have found some relief, however. Almost three years after I came to death row, I started to receive weekly injections of an anti-androgen medication called Depo-Provera. Three years later, following some trouble with my liver, the treatment was switched to monthly Depo-Lupron injections, which I receive to this date. What these drugs did was significantly reduce my body's natural production of the male sex hormone, testosterone. For some reason -- an abnormal biological hook-up in my brain, perhaps, or some sort of chemical imbalance -- testosterone affects my mind differently than it affects the average male's. A few months after I started to receive treatment, my blood serum testosterone levels dropped below those typical of pre-pubescents. (My current blood serum testosterone averages 20 ng/dl [nanograms/deciliter] the normal adult male range is 260-1250 ng/dl.) As this happened, nothing less than a miracle occurred: my obsessive thoughts, urges, and fantasies began to diminish.
Living with these unwanted thoughts, urges, and fantasies is a lot like living with an obnoxious roommate. You can't get away from them because they are always there. What the Depo-Lupron does for me is move that roommate down the hall to his own apartment. The problem is still there, but it is much easier to deal with because it isn't always in the foreground, intruding on my everyday life. The "monster within" is still present, but the medication has rendered him impotent and banished him to the back of my mind. And while he can still mock me -- from time to time, he kicks me on the side of the head so I don't forget that he's still there -- he can no longer control me. I control him. I am human once again.
You cannot begin to imagine what a milestone this was in my life. A whole new world opened up to me. I had my mind back -- a clear mind free of malevolent thoughts and urges. It was an unbelievable, incredible sense of freedom. It may sound strange for a condemned man to speak of being free on death row, but that is the only word I can think of that adequately describes the transformation I have undergone. And there are no words to express the gratitude that I feel towards the man who made this all possible: Dr. Fred Berlin. Dr. Berlin testified on my behalf at my capital trial. More importantly, he did not abandon me after the trial was over and I was sentenced to death; he continued to help me and was essential in my fight to get the Department of Correction to acknowledge and treat my paraphiliac disorder. Without his letters and phone calls, I never would have received treatment for my disorder and to this day would still be captive to the monster that resides in my mind.
Which is not to say that all is well now. One of the results of everything that happened is that I was forced to look at myself. I'm not talking about the cursory, superficial manner in which most people look at themselves, but rather a painful, unrelenting search into the depths of my soul.
Many inmates in prison are able to lie convincingly to themselves, to see themselves as basically good people who are the innocent victims of a corrupt judicial system or of an unfair and uncaring society. Sometimes it is very difficult to see ourselves as we truly are, and much easier to blame others for our actions. I know this to be true because for years this is exactly what I did. During this period I was angry, so very angry, at everyone and everything except the one person I should have been angry with: myself. It took a very long time, years in fact, for my anger to subside and for me to accept who I was and what I had become. It was even longer before I was willing to accept full responsibility for my actions.
Then I had a whole new set of problems, for the Depo-Lupron not only freed my mind, it allowed my moral judgement to awaken. This gave me back something I thought I had lost forever -- my humanity. For the first time in years, I began to really see, as opposed to seeing things through the distorted glasses of my mental illness. It was like a spotlight shining down on me, burning away the fog, exposing every shadow of my being. I began to understand things about myself that I didn't like, things that brought me great anguish. Though I'd always considered myself strong and confident, I now realized how weak and afraid I had been. I began to understand how I allowed the monster in my mind to take control. I saw what I had become.
Worst of all, for the first time I truly became aware of the pain I had brought to so many people -- such great and unceasing pain. I began to feel the terrible agony and distress that I had brought to my victims, the families and friends of my victims, my own family. I also began to feel the awesome weight of my responsibility for my actions, and of my responsibility to the people I have harmed. Finally, I felt a profound sense of guilt: an intense, overwhelming, and pervasive guilt that surrounds my very soul with dark, tormented clouds filled with a mixture of self-hatred, remorse, regrets, and sorrow. All of which leaves me with a deep desire to make amends and achieve reconciliation -- which seems all but impossible, given my circumstances.
Yet I yearn for this sense of reconciliation above all: reconciliation with the spirits of my victims; reconciliation with the families and friends of my victims; and, finally, reconciliation with myself and my God. If this happens, it will be the final part of my transformation -- and undoubtedly the most difficult part. If only science could create a drug to help me with this problem.
What is my current situation? In July 1994, the Connecticut Supreme Court overturned my death sentences on the grounds that the jury had not been allowed to consider all of the mitigating evidence. (The jury never knew that the state's own psychiatric expert had agreed with the defense psychiatrists' diagnosis of sexual sadism; in fact, the state led them to believe that there was a difference of opinion among the experts). The court ordered a new penalty hearing. In May 1995, my public defenders argued before a superior court judge that my mental illness was a statutory mitigating circumstance, which, under the capital felony law that applied to my case (the law has since been changed), mandated the imposition of a sentence of life without possibility of release instead of the death penalty. We requested a hearing solely on the question of my mental illness. The motion was denied.
Faced with a new penalty hearing and wishing to spare the families of my victims further emotional pain, I decided to take full responsibility for my actions and accept the death penalty as my punishment. My public defenders objected and refused to follow my explicit instructions, so I fired them. Since then I have worked with the state's attorney on a list of stipulations that will allow the court to re-sentence me to death. In May 1997, the judge in my case ruled that a three-judge panel would have to be convened to formally consider the stipulations and render the new death sentences. As of early 1998, we are still waiting for that panel to be assembled. It is my hope that this case will be resolved within the next few months. If so, I could be executed before the year 2000.
So what can be learned from this sad story? I'm not really sure; it seems pretty tragic all the way around. However, one thing that is surely true is that other "Michael Rosses" are out there in various stages of development. They need places where they can go for help. One of the most difficult and painful things for me to deal with today is the knowledge that, had I begun receiving just one little 1 cc. injection of Depo-Lupron a month twenty years ago, eight women would still be alive today. This is a very heavy burden on my mind, one that I will carry with me for the rest of what remains of my life.
Society needs to learn from this tragic affair. It needs to make the changes necessary to prevent the failure of diagnosis and the lack of early treatment for others like me. It's easy for society to point its finger at me, to call me "evil," and to condemn me to death. But if that is all that happens, it will be a terrible waste and a tragic mistake. For in a sense society will be condemning itself to future "Michael Rosses." Tragic murders, such as those I committed, can be avoided in the future, but only if society stops turning its back on paraphiliac disorders, stops condemning, and begins squarely acknowledging and treating the problem. Only then will something constructive come from the deaths of eight women, the devastated lives of their families and friends, my own incarceration and probable execution, and the untold shame and anguish this has brought to my family. The past has already happened and cannot be undone; it's up to you to change the future.
As of 12/25/00, Michael Ross remains on Connecticut's death row.