BRADENTON — The state’s highest court has overturned the murder conviction and death sentence of Blaine Ross, saying investigators mishandled his interrogation days after his parents were beaten to death with a baseball bat more than six years ago.
In a narrow 4-3 majority, the Florida Supreme Court has ordered Ross to have a new trial, and the confession he made to Manatee County Sheriff’s Office detectives cannot be presented to the jury in those proceedings.
The Supreme Court found that the detective in the case, William Waldron, violated Ross’ rights in obtaining a confession two days after the killings, and that Circuit Judge Edward Nicholas should have disallowed the confession at trial.
A jury convicted Ross, now 27, in May 2007 of first-degree murder and robbery in the slaying of his parents, Richard and Kathleen, in their East Manatee home. Nicholas sentenced Ross to death that November after a jury recommended the punishment.
Ross appealed his conviction and death sentence, citing problems with statements he gave to law enforcement about the deaths of his parents. He claimed he was not properly advised of his rights before he spoke with detectives. Transcripts from Blaine Ross’ capital murder trial were sent to the Florida Supreme Court in February 2008.
Carolyn Schlemmer, Ross’ lead public defender, was elated after learning of the state’s highest court’s decision.
“I have been anticipating and hoping that the Florida Supreme Court would do the right thing in reversing his convictions, and we are very pleased with this ruling,” she said Thursday.
Assistant State Attorney Art Brown, who prosecuted the 2007 trial, expressed disappointment in the Supreme Court’s decision.
“Obviously we felt that Judge Nicholas was correct in denying the motion to suppress,” Brown said. “But we are prepared to try him (Ross) again.”
The Attorney General’s office may make a motion for a rehearing, Brown said. But if a hearing is not granted, Ross goes back before a jury of his peers.
Sheriff’s office spokesman Dave Bristow said investigators are confident that Ross will again be found guilty of the crimes.
“We had a very strong case and still do,” he said.
On Jan. 7, 2004, Ross, then 21, called 911 saying he had found his parents killed in their bedroom. Sheriff’s deputies arrived to find a gruesome crime scene and later determined the couple had been beaten to death with a baseball bat. No weapon was ever found.
In finding that Ross’ rights were violated, the Supreme Court ruling described a pressure-packed investigation two days later in which Waldron questioned Ross for hours without reading him his Miranda rights, which outline a person’s rights to remain silent and to an attorney.
The high court ruling states Waldron deliberately delayed reading Ross his rights in an effort to obtain a confession, while assuring him that he was not under arrest, amounting to an involuntary confession from Ross.
“Specifically, the police, over a period of several hours of custodial interrogation, deliberately delayed administration of the warnings of Miranda v. Arizona,” the ruling reads.
The Supreme Court ruled that detectives obtained admissions from Ross, and when Miranda warnings were administered “midstream,” detectives “minimized and downplayed the significance of the warnings and continued the prior interrogation — all of which undermined the effectiveness of Miranda.”
The ruling said Waldron should have read Ross his rights before the heated interrogation began, with regards to a pair of Ross’ pants found with his parents’ blood on them. The decision said Waldron throughout the interview “accused Ross of killing his parents,” before reading him his rights.
Chief Justice Peggy Quince wrote the opinion, with justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Jorge Labarga concurring.
Justices pointed to a sample of the discussion — comments made by Waldron that the justices said should have been made after Ross had been read his rights.
“I know how that blood got there, Blaine. When you brutally, cold-blooded beat your parents to death, when you smashed in their head and beat them to death,” Waldron told Ross.
During the interrogation, Ross asked if he was being arrested.
“Nope. At this time you and I are talking, OK?” Waldron said.
The ruling said it was not until after hours of similar questions and statements toward Ross did Waldron present him his Miranda rights in writing, which Ross signed. Ross then went on to confess.
Ross killed his parents with a baseball bat as they slept in their bedroom, jurors determined. Any one of the numerous blows to their heads and necks would have been enough to kill them, a medical examiner testified during the two-week trial.
According to testimony, after the killings, Ross placed ropes around his parents’ necks and staged a clumsy burglary in the home to cover his tracks. Ross took his mother’s bank card and tried to withdraw money from her account but was unsuccessful. He also took the bat and either threw it off the DeSoto Bridge into the Manatee River or put it in a Dumpster.
Investigators never found the weapon.
The dissenting opinion
Not all of the justices agreed that the sentence should be overturned, with Justice Ricky Polston writing a dissenting opinion, and justices Charles Canady and James “E.C.” Perry in agreement.
Ross volunteered to come to the sheriff’s office on Jan. 9, 2004, to discuss the case. At that point Waldron felt he did not have enough evidence to arrest Ross, and he properly questioned him for as long as Ross allowed, according to Polston’s dissent. And before Ross confessed on video, he willingly signed a waiver of his Miranda rights.
The dissent states, “Detective Waldron carefully read Ross’ Miranda rights to him, asked if he understood those rights, obtained a written waiver, and then asked if Ross wished to talk to him. Ross stated that he did. Only then did the interview proceed.”
Melissa Blankenhorn, who dated Ross for a short stint when they attended Lakewood Ranch High School, said it’s unfortunate for the family that the case could be retried.
“Of all the horrible things the family has to relive,” Blankenhorn said from her home in Virginia on Thursday. “Who would ever want to have to do that again? Going through it one time, yet alone again!
“The police should be in complete perfect control and have their training down to where they’re not making mistakes,” said Blankenhorn, 27. “They should know when to read him his rights — of all things, to have the case retried over that? My goodness.”
Ross has spent the last three years on death row in Florida State Prison in Raiford.
If his case is retried, he’ll likely be transferred back to the Manatee County jail until his trial date is set.
At the time of his punishment, Ross was the first person in Manatee to be sentenced to death in nearly 20 years.
— Beth Burger, Herald staff writer, contributed to this report.