Tom 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
One 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.
Of 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.”