NEW YORK — Ronell Wilson's arduous legal odyssey began nearly a decade ago when, as young gang member, he was arrested in one of New York City's most notorious police killings: the point-blank execution of two undercover officers in an illegal gun sting gone awry.
A jury convicted Wilson in federal court in Brooklyn in 2006, then sentenced him to death a few weeks later in 2007. But in 2010, an appeals court tossed out the sentence, meaning a new jury would have to decide his fate.
That won't happen any time soon, if at all.
The replay of the trial's penalty phase has been put off as Wilson's lawyers seek to convince a judge that he's ineligible for the death penalty because he's mentally disabled. As the case drags on, the Staten Island native once known by the street name "Rated R" is being held in solitary confinement over the objections of his defense team.
"We are concerned for his mental health as he has no contact with his family and friends and no access to his legal materials so that his ability to assist his legal team is compromised," one of the lawyers wrote in an Aug. 15 letter to the warden at a Brooklyn lockup.
Wilson, now 30, was running with a street gang in 2003 when authorities say the two New York Police Department officers, posing as illegal gun buyers, met with him for what they thought was a deal to buy a Tec-9 submachine gun.
At trial, Wilson denied knowing the victims were police officers — a claim contradicted by an accomplice who testified that he and Wilson decided to rob them after learning they were undercovers carrying cash. Prosecutors said that while sitting in the back seat of an unmarked police car, the defendant shot one officer in the head first and then turned his gun on the other, who pleaded in vain for his life.
In the penalty phase, prosecutors made the case for execution by presenting emotional testimony by the detectives' widows. The defense countered with anecdotal evidence of Wilson's troubled background as the son of a crack-addicted mother living with a dozen relatives crammed into an apartment at a crime-infested housing project.
Jurors agreed that Wilson should die by lethal injection. He became the city's first federal defendant to receive a death sentence since 1954, when it was imposed on a bank robber who killed an FBI agent.
But the appeals court reversed the decision, saying that prosecutors violated Wilson's constitutional rights by telling the jury his decision to go to trial demonstrated his lack of remorse and refusal to accept responsibility.
The ruling — now nearly 2 years old — took Wilson off of the federal death row in Terre Haute, Ind., and landed him back in the Brooklyn jail where he's undergone a battery of psychiatric exams.
He was in the general population there until early August, when he was put in a special housing unit meant for high-risk prisoners. Prison officials said the move was made because of "an internal investigation" but offered no further explanation.
With Wilson languishing behind bars, his lawyers are mounting an argument that he should be spared based on the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court outlawing the execution of mentally disabled offenders.
Wilson's last public utterances came more than five years ago. At sentencing, he repeated his defense that, "None of us knew these men were cops — period."
He also took aim at those who considered him unworthy of redemption.
"You still look at me like I'm the lowest thing on earth," he said. "But it's in my heart that I'm sorry."