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Death row defender found work, friendship in New London after capital punishment repealed

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New London — Attorney M. Fred DeCaprio spent a good portion of his career representing people facing the death penalty, including serial killer Michael Ross.

In 2012, after Connecticut repealed the death penalty, Chief Public Defender Susan Storey asked DeCaprio, then working in the statewide capital defense unit, where he wanted to go.

"Of course I said New London," DeCaprio recalled last week during an interview in his office in the New London Judicial District courthouse.

DeCaprio, 72, of Middlefield, retired Aug. 1 after 37 years as a public defender. He stayed on as a temporary employee to help train attorney Michael Miller, who transferred from the lower-level court to take DeCaprio's place in the so-called Part A court where major crimes are tried.

"It's time to go," he said. "I've done it for a long time. My health is good, and at my age, who knows how long it will last."

He plans to keep busy by volunteering or working part-time as a title searcher or consultant.

Assigned to New London temporarily as a "rover" after he became a public defender in 1984, DeCaprio left the Whaling City for lengthy stints as chief public defender at Hartford's Geographical Area 14 courthouse and the capital defense unit. He always came back, when given a choice, because of the special bonds he has with current and former co-workers in the public defender's office on the third floor of the Huntington Street courthouse.

They've supported one another through personal tragedies, including the death of DeCaprio's son Pete in 2011, and celebrated together at DeCaprio's annual family picnic, where he plays guitar and sings.

Secretary Barbara Callahan said DeCaprio is like family.

Their kids all grew up together, said investigator Tracy Wernicki, who is also headed for retirement soon. She likes to tease DeCaprio about Neil Diamond, whom she loves. DeCaprio is not a fan.

'You're on their side'

DeCaprio was a mentor to the office's lead public defender, Kevin Barrs, who was a legal intern when he met DeCaprio at a picnic at the home of their longtime colleague, Public Defender Bruce Sturman. Early in his career, Barrs said DeCaprio took a chance on him and brought him to Hartford to try cases. Barrs said he never learned so much as he did during lunch hours, when everybody would gather around and talk about trial techniques.

A client once described DeCaprio as "having a sickness for trial," Barrs said, and DeCaprio is one of toughest and most persistent people he knows. DeCaprio's father, who was Italian, had a saying, "Keep a go," to describe that work ethic, Barrs said.

For all that, DeCaprio is a mellow guy with a quiet voice and calming demeanor. Often seen outside the courtroom in a baseball cap, he'll stop to console a prosecutor about the loss of a beloved Basset hound or to explain a legal concept to a newspaper reporter.

Clients often distrust public defenders, because they're paid by the state, but DeCaprio has the gift of empathy.

"I think it's being nonjudgmental and being supportive to the clients, more than legally, but emotionally, too," he said. "They have to understand you're on their side."

Like other public defenders, he's sometimes been vilified for representing clients who have committed heinous crimes.

"You get the 'How do you defend those people?' rap," he said. He usually responds with the generic, "Everyone's entitled to a defense."

Effective jury selection

Michael Ross, who confessed to killing eight young girls and women and raping most of them, was his most notorious client. DeCaprio and attorney Peter Scillieri represented Ross at his first trial in Bridgeport, and essentially won when his death sentence was reversed on appeal.

"Fred was a great person to partner with on a case," Scillieri, who is retired, said via email. "He was always prepared, he thought strategically and, with his quiet voice, and dignified, almost courtly demeanor, he was especially effective in jury selection. Jurors would relax and talk, revealing themselves in the process."

DeCaprio and Scillieri asked to be taken off the case when Ross decided to waive his appeals and be put to death.

"We couldn't reconcile what Michael wanted to do with our own personal beliefs," DeCaprio said. Ross understood their position, he said. Ross was the last person to be executed in Connecticut, in 2005.

Scillieri mentioned DeCaprio's love for absurd humor, which he evidently passed on to his grandchildren. Brought to the office for a visit one day, they pasted paper mustaches on every family picture on the wall while DeCaprio was in the courtroom.

DeCaprio grew up in Woodbridge and attended the University of Connecticut for undergraduate studies and law school, graduating in 1973. He worked in two small law firms and as a solo practitioner for the first decade of his career. He enjoyed criminal law, and got a contract to serve as a special public defender before becoming an in-house public defender in 1984.

By the time he returned to New London in 2012, he was at the top of his field.

"We were exceptionally lucky to get someone as experienced and talented as (attorney) DeCaprio here in New London," said Hillary B. Strackbein, chief administrative judge for the New London Judicial District. "He brought his knowledge and respect for his clients along with his sense of humor which has added to the excellent culture here in New London. We will really miss him, but his retirement is extremely well deserved."

k.florin@theday.com

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