When Connecticut news editor Martha Elliott makes contact with serial killer Michael Ross on death row in 1995, the last thing she expected was to become this man’s friend and confidant or that she would take on a fight to save his life. “No one in her right mind invites a serial killer into her life,” she says.
Michael Ross raped and murdered eight young women between 1981 to 1984 in Connecticut and New York. Most were teenagers and all were completely unknown to Ross, victims chosen at random for him to carry out his twisted fantasies with. Found when witnesses were able to give police a description of his car, Ross was 25-years-old and openly confessed to multiple murders. Tried for four of the murders, his trial had a predictable outcome and Michael Ross received six life sentences and a place on death row.
In 1987 his life sentences were overturned; he was granted a new trial based on psychiatric evidence which was not presented at his original trial. Michael Ross, it was concluded, was a sexual sadist; a man who achieved sexual pleasure by inflicting pain on others and this was the monster within that Ross believed was behind his crimes. It was a new trial, however, that he refused to participate in; instead, he actively pushed for his own execution.
In her book “The Man in the Monster: An Intimate Portrait of a Serial Killer”, Martha Elliott tells the story of her meeting with Michael Ross and her unexpected, turbulent and complex journey with him for the next 10 years. Elliott was the editor-in-chief for the Connecticut Law Tribune when in 1995 she was asked to write a piece on Michael Ross and his crimes and specifically explore the complex issue of how the criminal justice system deals with mental health.
Initially, she was terrified to have any contact with him and when it came to meeting him she was in fear of what she was going to find. This man had brutally taken the lives of eight young women and now she was going to sit face to face with him. She is expecting a monster, a demon of some sort, the kind of man you would imagine could do these things to other people and not care but what she found was the opposite. She found a normal looking man who presented himself with feelings and emotions. He was the guy next door who became a serial killer and this turned her perceptions upside down.
“The man I met was nothing like what I had expected … This sensitive, articulate Cornell graduate was also a devout Roman Catholic who would profusely express his remorse for his crimes to anyone who would listen.”
The Man in the Monster is the story of Michael Ross, his terrible crimes and the impact on the families of his victims, but it is also a book which raises the issue that even serial killers are still human beings. Furthermore, it is an honest reflection of a woman who gave her time and energy to understanding who Michael Ross was and understanding her own feelings towards him. While their relationship was never a romantic one, it was an ongoing friendship and one that tested Elliott’s beliefs and convictions every step of the way.
Michael Ross had a domineering and violent mother who beat her children throughout their childhood. He grew up on a chicken farm in Brooklyn, Connecticut under the shadow of his mother, but he achieved academically eventually receiving a degree in Agriculture from Cornell University in New York, all before he embarked on his killing spree. By the time Martha Elliott meets him, Ross claims he wants his execution to go ahead, he doesn’t want it delayed and refuses to entertain the idea of another trial to put forward a mental health defence because he says that would force the families of his victims to relive what he had done and he didn’t want to be responsible for that. He can’t change what he has done he said, but he can advocate being put to death for his crimes as his way of showing his remorse. A quest that some feel was simply a request for state-assisted suicide.
Martha Elliott came to believe that the side of Michael Ross that she saw was the one that could not comprehend what he had done or how he had done it. The monster within him that was to blame was not a monster that she ever saw. Elliott has always opposed to capital punishment so the idea of putting a man to death who suffered from mental health issues, even if such issues were sexual sadism, is not something that was going to sit well with her.
It is clear Elliott struggled to place the man she knew had committed these heinous crimes with the man that she had got to know. She saw him as a person and a flawed person no doubt, but not as the monster serial killer the rest of the world saw.
Knowing what this man had done, not once but eight times, and reading Elliott describe a “kind and considerate man” is difficult to digest but it does invoke a thought process on whether such a man can have true remorse and whether Michael Ross, in particular, is manipulating Martha Elliott for his own gain. A question she asks herself repeatedly, the sincerity of Ross and his portrayal of the ‘true Michael’ is one that is never fully answered.
“Michael Ross was a brutal rapist and killer, but I also met another side of him – a caring, thoughtful person who exhibited true remorse….”
The message Michael Ross gave to Martha and the rest of the world appears conflicted. He wanted to be executed for his crimes to show his remorse for what he had done but equally, he wanted his crimes to be put down to his sexual sadism, his mental health that he said he was unable to control. On the one hand, he claimed he wanted to show he was taking responsibility for his murderous actions by walking into the execution chamber, on the other he wanted to be excused from his crimes through the defence that he was not fully responsible because of his mental health. Michael Ross did succeed in his quest despite the efforts of Martha Elliott and other supporters. He was executed by lethal injection on 13 May 2005 after 18 years on death row.
The issues Martha Elliott’s story raises are complex not only from a legal perspective in terms of mitigating circumstances when it comes to criminal behaviour and mental health, but also on a moral and personal level when we turn to consider the human being behind the crimes in question. While many will maintain a man who could inflict the pain and torture Michael Ross did on his victims is not a man who deserves any sympathy or support, there are others who feel even such a man can be truly remorseful. Martha Elliott is certainly the latter and while she never tried to minimize what Michael Ross had done, she did try to humanize the man behind the crimes and reveal the man who lived inside the monster.