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Romano: Judge who imposed death penalty reflects on the practice

Longtime Judge Ray Ulmer Jr. sent four men to death row.

Longtime Judge Ray Ulmer Jr. sent four men to death row.

Retirement, the judge has discovered, could not be better.

There are grandchildren nearby who deserve to be spoiled, and he has just the disposition to do it up right. He lives in the same community where he was born 74 years ago, and he can't imagine a finer life anywhere else.

And then one day he picks up a newspaper, and a familiar name jumps out at him. A death warrant has been signed for a man convicted of two 1985 murders.

The same man he once sent to death row.

• • •

I understand the arguments against the death penalty.

I recognize that our justice system is far from perfect, and there is a chance that more than one innocent man is sitting on death row. And I get the idea that government-sanctioned executions put us in the same category of nations we consider barbaric and extreme.

Yet I still cannot rail against the death penalty. When an execution in Oklahoma was recently botched, I found myself unconcerned about the condemned man's final minutes. Instead, I researched stories about his victim, who suffered an even worse fate.

This is why I sought out Judge Ray E. Ulmer Jr.

I wanted to understand how this highly respected judge since the mid 1970s felt in retrospect about sentencing someone to die. I wondered whether he had nightmares. Regrets. I wondered if time had hardened his resolve or caused him to rethink his views.

Ulmer, who has come out of retirement part time to handle foreclosure cases, was once considered among the toughest judges in Tampa Bay.

They called him Raiford Ray (in honor of the prison near Raiford) after he began handing down maximum sentences for jail escapees. A group of prisoners at the county jail once sent him a card on Mother's Day dubbing him "Mother of the Year,'' and not in a kind way.

It was Ulmer who presided over the murder trial of John Henry, whose death warrant was recently signed by Gov. Rick Scott and who is scheduled to be executed June 18 if doctors determine he is sane.

In Ulmer's court, Henry was convicted of repeatedly stabbing his wife, Suzanne, in the neck while her 5-year-old son was in another room in their Zephyrhills home. Henry covered her with a rug, smoked a cigarette and then drove his stepson to a wooded area in Hillsborough County, where he stabbed the boy to death.

When it came time for sentencing, Ulmer appeared more shaken than Henry. His voice quavered as he read the declaration the state required with any death sentence.

What intrigued me was that Ulmer later told a reporter he would consider it a character flaw if he actually had enjoyed handing down that sentence.

"You know the guy who stops traffic to pick up a turtle in the road and has everybody blowing their horn and giving him the finger? That's me,'' Ulmer told me last week when explaining his outlook on life and death. "Knowing a case could be heading in that direction is an awesome responsibility, and it always concerned me greatly.

"You can't be flippant. You can't go in there like you're some badass and say 'Everybody wants this guy to die, and I'm going to nail him.' That doesn't work for me.''

As he talked about improvements in DNA testing and the possibility that condemned killers might be exonerated too late, Ulmer grabs his arms as if he has just given himself the shivers.

"I just can't imagine anything so horrible,'' Ulmer said. "I don't even want to think about it happening.''

Yet for all his concerns about the responsibilities that come with the sentence, Ulmer says he still believes in the death penalty. He believes it is a necessary deterrent. And he believes it is justice. He believes it should be reserved for cases where guilt is beyond doubt, and circumstances warrant the penalty.

As it turns out, Ulmer sent four men to death row, and either the conviction or the sentence was overturned in all four cases. Ulmer says he's fine with that.

He changed one sentence himself to life in prison after defense attorneys presented new evidence. The state Supreme Court did the same in another. In the case of serial killer Bobby Joe Long, the conviction was overturned because of questions about his confession, and he was retried a couple of times before prosecutors gave up. Long, who admitted to killing 10 women, is still on death row for another conviction.

As for the Henry case, his conviction for murdering his wife was overturned by the Florida Supreme Court because jurors heard too much testimony about the murder of his stepson during the trial. Henry was retried under another judge and once again convicted and sentenced to death.

After talking for more than an hour, it's time for Ulmer to return to his life of grandkids and stress-free days. As we depart, I ask whether Henry's potential death concerns him.

Ulmer pauses and looks off in the distance for a handful of seconds. When he looks back, his gaze is steady.

"No,'' he says, "not at all.''

Romano: Judge who imposed death penalty reflects on the practice 05/16/14 [Last modified: Saturday, May 17, 2014 7:45pm]
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