Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Erasmo Ramirez shuts down his old Rays teammates

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — Kevin Kiermaier returned. The problem is, so did Erasmo Ramirez.

    Seattle Mariners first baseman Yonder Alonso (10) scores on the double by Seattle Mariners designated hitter Nelson Cruz (23) in the first inning of the game between the Seattle Mariners and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Friday, August 18, 2017.
  2. 'Road to Nowhere' is back: Next phase of Suncoast Parkway coming

    Roads

    Despite intense public opposition and dubious traffic projections, the Florida Department of Transportation has announced that construction of the toll road known as "Suncoast 2" is expected to start in early 2018.

    The Suncoast Parkway ends at U.S. 98 just south of Citrus County. For years residents have opposed extending the toll road, a project dubbed the "Suncoast 2" into Citrus County. But state officials recently announced that the Suncoast 2 should start construction in early 2018. [Stephen J. Coddington  |  TIMES]
  3. Jameis Winston's hardest lesson: He can't always save the day

    Bucs

    TAMPA — Ever wonder what in the world goes through Jameis Winston's mind when he tries to fit the ball in a keyhole as he is being dragged to the turf like he was during Thursday night's 12-8 preseason win over the Jaguars?

    Jameis Winston, left, tries to hang on to the ball as Jaguars defensive end Dante Fowler tries to strip it from him.
  4. Despite pain, woman in court faces ex-boyfriend who lit her on fire

    Criminal

    PORT RICHEY

    Sheron Pasco sat in the wheelchair as her mother pushed it toward the man in the orange jail suit.

    Sheron Pasco, 39, relies on the help of her mother, Tranda Webb, 62, as she recovers from the burns covering her body.
  5. Florida starter under center still under wraps

    College

    GAINESVILLE — With two weeks before Florida opens its season against Michigan, the Gators' three-way quarterback battle remains wide open.

    Luke Del Rio, right, is in the mix to start against Michigan in the season opener … as is Malik Zaire and Feleipe Franks.