A contrite Robert Chatigny apologized dozens of times to Senate Republicans at a brutal hearing Wednesday for his conduct relating to the conviction of a notorious serial killer. But his face – lips puckered, brow furrowed – may have said more than any of his answers.
The questions were so painful that Chatigny’s Republican tormentors repeatedly apologized for broaching them.
“You probably want to be off that subject and so do I,” Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, said in transitioning from whether Chatigny believes sexual sadism is a “mitigating factor” in killing sprees to whether he flagrantly disregarded judicial precedent in a decision the Supreme Court later slapped down 9 to 0.
Early indications are that Chatigny’s rough time may complicate President Obama’s bid for him to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. “This is not a matter that is going to lightly go away,” Judiciary ranking member Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, said.
Chatigny said he could understand why people would think he’s soft on sexual criminals. He said he could see how the senators assembled would doubt his temperament. “I can well understand why you would have that perception,” he said to one of many charges.
“It was a learning experience,” he said about browbeating the lawyer of confessed serial killer Michael Ross, a.k.a. the roadside strangler, into claiming Ross wasn’t competent to relinquish his appeals and face his execution. “It’s not a reliable indication of my record.”
Then, Chatigny threatened Ross’s lawyer he would seek his disbarment if evidence came out that Ross was incompetent to accept his conviction. He said Ross’s sexual sadism was “clearly” a mitigating factor and that his obsession with sexually brutalizing and killing women may make him “the least culpable, the least, of the people on death row.”
Now, Chatigny said his words were “excessive.” He said he handled it the wrong way, it happened at the end of a stressful week, and it was a “unique,” emergency, “life or death” decision.
Despite his apologies, he said his intentions were good.
“I believe I did the right thing, but in the wrong way.”
Chatigny’s explanation for all the remarkable things he said that day in 2005 is that he was trying to underscore the gravity of the situation to Ross’s lawyer.
“I was trying to explain to [Ross’s lawyer] that … evidence casting doubt on Ross’s competence … pervaded the case,” Chatigny said.
Coburn revealed that Chatigny may have violated federal law in challenging Ross’s competence because, he said, Chatigny should have relied on the previous determinations of the court system on that point.
In relying of his personal experience from a tour of the local prisons to inform his view that the prison’s conditions there may have driven Ross to legal suicide, Chatigny was departing from the written record judges are supposed to rely on, Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, said.
And another thing: Chatigny told Ross’s lawyer that Europeans would never tolerate such awful prison conditions. Under questioning from Kyl, Chatigny professed he would never consider foreign law in deciding cases.
On the subject of Chatigny’s history of doling out light sentences for sexual crimes such as possession of child pornography, Coburn dug up an old speech to a liberal legal group in which he blasted minimum sentence laws because when judges rule, “empathy inevitably comes into play as it should.”
Coburn asked if empathy comes into play when Chatigny rules on cases. “No,” he responded, he only relies on the facts and the law.