Crusading Public Defender Moves On

Paul Bass PhotoTom Ullmann sees much still wrong with Connecticut’s criminal justice system. But he also sees a lot right — and, in 43 years of tireless advocacy, he can claim some of the credit.

Ullmann’s last official day of work as New Haven’s chief public defender was Thursday. Tears were shed in the 235 Church St. courthouse defenders’ suite where he has worked since 1985 and been in charge since 1992. Although people knew they hadn’t seen the last of him, given the piles of papers and boxes that he has only begun to file and move out of his crammed office.

For Ullmann, defending accused criminals who can’t otherwise afford a lawyer hasn’t been just a career. It has been a life mission. He began working for the state judicial system in a work-release program in 1974. He has worked in New Haven’s public defender office, first at the Elm Street court, then across the street on Church, since 1980. He made a mark as a passionate advocate for indigent accused criminals and as a dogged opponent of the death penalty. In both day-to-day and headline-grabbing cases, he won the freedom of the falsely accused and spared the life of one high-profile killer.

He has helped make Connecticut something of a model for the nation by helping to create and then working on the state Sentencing Commission. On the side he has inspired a generation of younger lawyers as a professor at Yale and Quinnipiac law schools.

At 67, he still jogs daily and can pull all-nighters. But in recent years he watched several of his closest friends, including New Haven defense attorney Diane “Cookie” Polan, suddenly take sick and die. He decided he wanted to travel more with his wife, retired prison educator Diana Pacetta-Ullmann, spend time with his adult sons, go kayaking.

“I’m excited. I feel proud of my career. I’ve loved every minute of it. I would never trade a minute of it. What could be more important than [protecting] someone’s freedom?” Ullmann reflected during an interview break Thursday between initial jabs at cleaning out his office.

“I feel healthy. But these catastrophic things that can happen — there are a lot of things I want to do in my life.”

Those things also include possibly writing about some of his more memorable cases.

Pagan’s Xmas Eve Set-Up

Melissa Bailey PhotoOne of those memorable cases involved defending Branford businessman Anthony “Gene” Bontantibus, who was accused of an arson murder. Ullmann was, and remains, convinced Bontantibus was innocent. After three mistrials, Bontantibus won his freedom.

More than a decade later, Bontantibus still remembers what Ullman told him at the start of their relationship: “I don’t care if you’re guilty. I don’t care if you did it or not. I’m here to give you the best possible defense you’re entitled to. If you did it and you tell me, that will help me set up one type of defense. If you didn’t do it and you tell me you didn’t do it, that sets up another option.” 

“He’d go to the ends of the earth for his clients,” Bontantibus said. “Never once did he make me feel like a criminal, treat me like a criminal. He listened when somebody spoke to him. Whether it was right, wrong or different, he listened to us and took the time to explain why it was right or wrong. He put you and your family at ease. People don’t realize what a tremendous stress trials put on the families, never mind the arrested person. He’s one in a million.”

Ullmann was also convinced that Ernest Pagan never committed the 2006 early-morning Christmas Eve barroom murder of which he was accused.

Ullmann didn’t represent Pagan at first; Pagan’s family paid an attorney from his carpenters union to do that. But the attorney had no real criminal defense experience. So the judge in the case, Richard Damiani, phoned Ullmann.

“Tom. You’ve got to come up and represent this guy. This lawyer they hired doesn’t know his ass from his elbow,” Ullmann remembered Damiani saying. To which Ullmann responded: “Judge, I’ve got enough cases” if this defendant already has a private attorney.

Two weeks later the judge called again. Pagan was protesting his innocence. But his lawyer was floundering. “Tom, you’ve got to do something,” Damiani pleaded. “This guy’s getting screwed.”

Ullmann agreed to speak to the lawyer — who “was so thrilled I called.” The lawyer said he lacked the money to do a real investigation.

Ullmann ended up diving into the case, skeptical of the accounts of three eyewitnesses cited in the arrest warrant. During the year he spent preparing the case, his suspicions were confirmed: one of the two New Haven detectives responsible for the arrest was himself arrested, accused of having coaxed witnesses to offer false testimony in dozens of arrests. In the trial, Ullmann succeeded in getting all three supposed eyewitnesses to reveal that the detectives had pointed to Pagan’s photograph for them to “identify.” When one eyewitness, who was 5 foot 7 inches, testified that the killer was an inch shorter than he, Ullmann had him step down — and next to Pagan, who was 6 foot 3. Pagan had spent 13 and a half months in jail before his acquittal, but now he was free.

Today Pagan is back with the carpenters union working as a business rep. In a conversation Friday, he called Ullman “a freedom fighter. He did his due diligence. He believed in me, and he cared about the truth. He treated me like a person and not a caseload. I felt like he defended me like he would defend his own child: He would leave no stone unturned. He was going against Goliath, he stood like David.”

In supervising other public defenders, Ullmann said, he always urges them to take a breach of peace charge as seriously as a felony. “Your advocacy should be just as strong,” he argued. “Each case is important to that individual.”

Ullmann has opposed the death penalty on moral as well as practical grounds his whole life, he said. He didn’t have to fight many death penalty cases in New Haven because longtime New Haven prosecutor, Michael Dearington, was less eager than his counterparts in other judicial districts to pursue it.

But public pressure did lead Dearington to seek the death penalty in the case of Guilford murderer Jonathan Mills, given the particularly gruesome nature of the crime. But at trial, Ullman succeeded in winning a life sentence, rather than capital punishment, for Mills.

“Once we saved Mills’s life, I thought the death penalty was dead in New Haven,” Ullmann recalled. Then came the brutal murders of the Petit family in Cheshire. Ullmann represented one of the two murderers, Stephen Hayes. That time he did not succeed in convincing the jury to spare his client’s life.

In his 43 years in the system, Ullmann has seen the public defender’s office’s caseload in Connecticut soar from 50 percent of all defendants to 88 percent.

And for all the continuing injustices in the system, he said, he has seen great progress made in Connecticut. The death penalty is now officially dead. The legal age at which a defendant can be tried as an adult has been raised from 16 to 18. Safeguards have been put into place to strengthen the eyewitness identification and taped-interview process. Juveniles sentenced as adults are now allowed to have their sentences reviewed sooner than before.

Unfinished Business

Thomas MacMillan PhotoOf course, there’s still plenty to do, Ullmann noted, including continued bail reform, more support for prison reentry programs, and fixing the state’s “ridiculous” sex offender registry. The registry has over 5,000 names, he said. Most of those people don’t belong on the registry, he argued. They don’t constitute a public risk, but they do now have harder times finding jobs or housing, which could lead them back to criminal behavior. He argued that the list should focus on the small pool of “high-risk” offenders.

He plans to continue pushing for that change as the Sentencing Commission works on a final report due at the legislature in January. He plans to continue teaching through the spring semester. He also plans to wrap up a few cases as an “assigned counsel,” including the sentencing of now-confessed Branford murderer Lishan Wang.

He’ll also submit to a roast by some of the people whose lives he has affected, at a going-away celebration at Anthony’s Ocean View this coming Thursday, Sept. 7, from 6 to 10 p.m. As of Thursday, 250 tickets had already been sold.

And yes, Ullmann does plan finally to clean up those piles of papers in his office. At one point the fire marshal sent a letter requesting he do so; that was years ago, and the results remain on display.

“They’ve given me a month,” he said. “Not paid.”

Beyond that, Ullmann will leave it to the other public defenders and all the students he has inspired and mentored to carry the torch for the accused and indigent. Although he shouldn’t be surprised if his phone keeps ringing.

“If I were in trouble tomorrow, I don’t care if he’s 96,” Gene Bontantibus remarked, “I’d still want him as my attorney.”

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posted by: challenge on September 2, 2017  10:25pm

A huge loss to criminal defense and the public defender office. It was obvious defending clients was so much more than a job. Wishing Tom well and many years of enjoying life. A life well lived thus far. He will be dearly missed. 😞😞😞

posted by: Patricia Kane on September 3, 2017  10:41am

This fierce Public Defender could be an effective advocate for dismantling the current prison industrial complex by supporting the abolition of all drug laws, as was done in Portugal, and in demanding a system of rehabilitation like the one that exists in Norway.
Patch work reforms will not alleviate the suffering inflicted on people in prisons.
I hope he lends his voice and skills to radical change. What a legacy that could be!

posted by: dudleysharp on September 3, 2017  2:35pm

Ullmann defended Steven Hayes in the capital murder trial of the three rape/torture/murders of Jennifer Hawke-Petit, who was raped and strangled to death, along with her two daughters, 17-year-old Haley and 11-year-old Michaela. Michaela, who was sexually assaulted. Both girls were burned alive and died of smoke inhalation. Dr. Bill Petit was beaten with a baseball bat, suffers permanent injuries, but survived. He is the sole survivor from his immediate family.

When the day came for sentencing Hayes to death, what did Ullman say?

“Today when the court sentences Steven Hayes to death everyone becomes a killer. We all become Steven Hayes.”

Ullman said that with Bill Petit, the extended Hawke/Petit family, loved ones and friends in the courtroom. Ullman called all of them Steven Hayes, as well as all others who find the death penalty a just and appropriate punishment for horrendous crimes.

The moral decay of Ullman’s statement is hard to fathom, as is the profound cruelty of when and where he voiced it

posted by: Brutus2011 on September 3, 2017  5:51pm

I want to say that our system of justice requires that an advocate for a defendant zealously represent him or her to the best of their ability—guilty or not.

It also does not matter how mundane or heinous the alleged or actual crime.

Our system is designed to protect individual rights against the abuses of government.

If ten guilty persons go free, it is better than one innocent person losing their freedom.

posted by: Patricia Kane on September 3, 2017  6:44pm

The death “penalty” is a killing. It may be state sanctioned, like war, but it is still a killing.

posted by: dudleysharp on September 4, 2017  10:55am


Of course execution is killing.

However, most folks understand the difference between crime and punishment, murder and execution, guily murderer and innocent vicitm.

The same reasons that folks don’t equate kidnapping and incarceration,  robbery and fines, slavery and community service.

Legal and moral distinctions are very important, something that Ullman does not seen to comprehend, as detailed.

Hopefully, you can.

posted by: 1644 on September 4, 2017  11:45am

I have no problem with Ullman’s personal opposition to the death penalty, or those who believe it debases us when we become killers.  My complaint with Ullman is that he so opposes the death penalty that he devotes a huge proportion of his offices resources to his death squad, even for cases where the defendant is obviously guilty of a heinous crime, simply because he believes death is never an appropriate penalty.  Meanwhile, overworked defenders in the GA court push those charged with minor offenses into plea deals, even when they have a viable defense of actual innocence, just to move cases along and clear the docket.

posted by: cunningham on September 4, 2017  12:15pm

@dudleysharp: One can understand the legal and moral distinctions between capital punishment and murder, and still decide that the former is wrong.

posted by: dudleysharp on September 4, 2017  1:56pm


I agree. I used to oppose capital punishment, until I fact checked all the claims of both sides, after which I switched.

I think jurors should have the option between life and death.

All sanctions are based upon selecting what is most just.

posted by: Patricia Kane on September 5, 2017  10:39am

@1644: the 2nd part of your statement on 9/4 “Meanwhile, overworked defenders in the GA court push those charged with minor offenses into plea deals, even when they have a viable defense of actual innocence, just to move cases along and clear the docket.” is a perfect non sequitur. It has NOTHING to do with Ullman but a lot to do with the inability of most accused to a) post bail and b) make repeated court appearances for conferences that can easily be handled w/o inconveniencing the accused. People cave because they can’t fight the system on terms the system has established and which is very profitable to the bail industry.
But thank you for the opportunity to explain why bail has to be eliminated in most cases and reserved for only the most serious crimes. Again, this prison-industrial for profit system, in which judges invest in private prisons the way people used to invest in companies that actually made something, has to be dismantled and a humane and truly rehabilitative institution designed and implemented, as has been done in Norway.

posted by: Patricia Kane on September 5, 2017  10:47am

@dudleysharp: “Killing” is justified in your mind when it is legally sanctioned, as in execution or war. As someone wrote, what is “legal” is not always “moral”. And I would add, what is “legal” today is “illegal” another day, as in slavery.
FYI, the 13th Amendment ending slavery exempted prison labor, an egregious source of exploitation that still exists and replaced the Jim Crow laws put in place after the Civil War.
Either we cultivate a respect for the sanctity of life or we devise mental games to devalue the other person’s right to exist in some way.

posted by: 1644 on September 5, 2017  11:32am

Atty Kane:  The resources of the public defender’s office are finite.  Resources devoted, more on moral than legal grounds, to keeping the obviously guilty, such as the Petit killers, from execution, are resources that are not available to others facing lesser penalties.  Accordingly, public defenders will push even those with a claim of actual innocence into plea deals, even when bail is not an issue, and they are not incarcerated.  Shifting resources from death squads to lesser cases would at least marginally change things.  BTW, I do agree that the surety bond system is an abomination,  imposing a significant financial cost on defendants even when they are ultimately found not guilty.  It penalizes all, but the poor suffer most.
  The bail system, a cost imposed before trial, is an entirely separate question from the purpose of custodial sentences, and the balance between rehabilitation and punishment.

posted by: dudleysharp on September 5, 2017  11:54am


The death penalty has always existed based upon the sanctity of life. The crime of the murder of innocents is so overwhelming that the murderers have sacrificed their own right to live. That has been the stated reason, forever.

A sanction cannot be a sanction unless we value that which is taken away. Basic.

Your statement was in error. I support the death penalty morally. I just happens to be legal, which is good. Legal does not always equate with moral, which I have, always, stated and agree with. I was anti death penalty until I was about 40 years old.

I think all of those imprisoned should work in prison to pay for their own incarcerations costs. It is just and not exploitation.

posted by: dudleysharp on September 5, 2017  12:05pm


I agree with you in part.

The primary reason for plea bargains is that the system would fold without them. About 95% of cases are plea bargained because we don’t have court time nor other resources to try more cases.

My guess is that for both the wealthy and the poor suspects/indicted, that charges dropped and plea bargains are at about the same percentage.

Most crimes are not solved or indicted and then those that are, we plea 95% of them.

Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

posted by: Patricia Kane on September 5, 2017  1:51pm

As usual, the comments here have been full of information and the disagreements have been civil.
I would just add that the criminalization of drugs instituted for political reasons by Nixon and his henchman, generated a huge leap in arrests, prosecution and incarceration. I know because I was working in the Stamford courthouse at the time.
    We remain #1 worldwide in percentage of citizens incarcerated. And most of the people are people of color because they were the primary target because they voted Dem.
    Until we decriminalize all drugs (see Portugal) and release all people incarcerated for drug related convictions, along with the mentally ill, we will merely be chipping away at the edges of a failed and inhumane system.
      Of course there are good people in the system, but they are overwhelmed by the shear volume of cases.
      On the federal level, judges lost their ability to use their experience and discretion when mandatory minimums were put in place. A Kafka-like auto penalty became the rule, no matter how ridiculous the outcome.
      This macho game of showing who is tougher on crime has destroyed lives and families.
      Our new “industry” in New Haven is a proliferation of non-profits to address the damage of the so-called criminal justice system with programs like Project Re-entry, housing and job resources. First a politically motivated law creates a criminal class, then it has to generate jobs to address the damage after the prey are released. And what of the children who grew up without a mother or a father?
      Just how many banksters went to jail (not that I think this is the only route) for reckless products and gambles that brought down the economy?
      How many people at TD Bank are under indictment for creating over 3 million phony accounts and charging illegal fees, i.e. stealing?
      How many bank executives are in jail for money laundering?
      Steal small and go to jail. Steal big?

posted by: Brutus2011 on September 5, 2017  4:19pm

In my opinion, many folks tend to hold others to a more stringent standard than they hold themselves.

I believe that is a causal factor why so many (non-wealthy) people vote Republican and why about 30% of us support Trumkkkp regardless of what he says and does.

I don’t indict others for their uninformed opinions about the law and lawyers.

I’m just grateful for the justice system we have—warts and all.

posted by: NewHaveJude on September 9, 2017  12:20pm

Congratulations, Tommy!!  Cookie would be proud.  May you & Diana have wonderful adventures & enjoy every one of them!  I’m sure you’ll “squeeze” in some games ~ UConn, Yankees & Giants!
Be well!  Jude Peluso