The Rough Rider

Hubert Santos thrives on the most difficult of challenges, just like a certain former president

Published in 2008 New England Super Lawyers — November 2008

In 1998, 23-year-old Chasity West used a carpet-cutter to slash her boyfriend's 7-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. The boy died; the girl survived. West was convicted of capital murder. And Hubert Santos, her defense attorney, was the only person standing in the way of her becoming the first Connecticut woman since 1786 to be sentenced to death.

"Imagine the emotional pressure you have with someone's life in your hands," says Louis Pepe of Pepe & Hazard, who has known Santos for 25 years. "It was a brutal trial and he didn't get paid much. Who among us would do that? But that's the kind of passion Hubie gives all of his clients. I don't know how he does it."

He just does it. Believing that everyone deserves a defense and nobody should be put to death, Santos made his case. He explained that, prior to committing this crime, West was a licensed practical nurse of good standing. He argued that despite the horrific nature of the murder, the boy didn't suffer in a cruel fashion. Santos pleaded for mercy.

He succeeded. Today, West sits in the York Correctional Institution, where she will remain for the rest of her life.

 

In a brown Victorian-style home, a block from the state Capitol, Santos works with his partner, Hope Seeley. In the waiting room, antique presidential campaign banners hang on the walls, proclaiming, "Carry on with Roosevelt and Wallace," "Win with Landon and Knox" and "Forward with Roosevelt and Garner."

A history buff, Santos uses his free time to hunt down presidential campaign memorabilia. While most guys collect buttons, he goes for the big stuff—flags, posters, paintings, statues.

Similarly, Santos gravitates to big cases. Take Karin Aparo, Michael Ross and Michael Skakel, for example. Santos isn't afraid of a challenge, or of using an unorthodox tactic to win a case.

Pepe faced Santos in a 1983 trade secrets trial. At summation, Santos sang lines from a song in Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta Trial by Jury. "He did it to make a point about prejudice," Pepe says. "And that's how he beat me."

 

The son of an Italian mother and a Portuguese father from Brazil, Santos grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Enfield. His parents had limited education and worked in the Bigelow-Sanford Carpet Mill. "Watching that dynamic and knowing they were always there for you no matter what pressures they faced, makes you less judgmental about other people," he says.

Santos graduated with honors from the University of Hartford and the University of Connecticut Law School. He spent a few years in private practice before taking a job as a federal public defender, representing clients charged with federal crimes and arguing before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.

"Little did I know that in my first case, the witness would be blown up," he says. Four guys from Providence placed a bomb behind the door of the home of Danny Lapolla, a federal witness who planned to testify against them. He was killed in the explosion. Despite that setback, the case enabled the young attorney to gain experience in handling forensics, working with witnesses and preparing for trial.

In 1979, Irish Catholic firefighters responded to a call in a Puerto Rican neighborhood. Not understanding Spanish, they left a boy to die beneath a pile of rubble. The outraged Puerto Rican community staged a protest. Santos worked to calm tensions and encouraged the force to hire several Spanish-speaking firefighters.

"There's such diversity [in Hartford]," says Santos. "You really see it when these hot-button issues come up."

And then there was Karin Aparo. He vividly remembers first meeting her. "It was a very strange thing," he says. "The receptionist buzzed and said, ‘There is a 16-year-old girl in the waiting room to see you.'" The girl, he says, was "very mature, very articulate, very together given the circumstances that her mother was dead." In fact, her mother had been murdered.

Aparo told Santos that her boyfriend, 18-year-old Dennis Coleman, had strangled her mother with a pair of pantyhose. Coleman admitted to killing her, but now blamed Aparo for planning and talking him into it. Aparo was about to be charged as an accessory to murder.

Santos recalls "how composed she was about the situation—at least externally. She lived alone with her mother [who was divorced from her father]. Karin was close to her mother—very, very close—and like a lot of girls that age she had some rebelliousness toward her mother."

It was a tough case. The boyfriend was a clean-cut kid who Santos says looked like Howdy Doody. Public sentiment grew against Aparo, who was perceived as "this poor-little-rich-girl from Glastonbury."

Afraid these negative perceptions would taint the jury, Santos gathered evidence to move the trial. He hired pollster Dick Morris, Bill Clinton's former political strategist, to ask 330 Hartford-area residents whether they'd heard of Aparo and what they thought of the case. Eighty-five percent knew her name. Half considered her guilty. In fact, more people knew of Aparo than of Lowell Weicker—the three-term senator running for governor at the time. Despite all this, the judge wouldn't grant permission to move the trial. But Santos didn't give up.

"He pulled rabbits out of hats on that case," says William Gerace, a Hartford defense lawyer. "He talked about dreams and about sexual abuse." He wanted to show part of the movie Friday the Thirteenth, because Santos said Coleman watched it just hours before killing Joyce Aparo. In the end, the judge wouldn't allow him to show it.

At trial, the prosecution characterized Aparo as cold and calculating—never shedding a tear for her mother. So at the end of his summation, standing in front of the jury, Santos turned to Aparo and said, "Karin, it's over now. Karin, you can cry now."

"We hadn't rehearsed it," Santos says. "I just took a chance, and she did cry."

Aparo was acquitted. "The jury foreman came out and hugged her—on TV," says Pepe. "It astonished everyone."

 

It's hard to think anything could be more dramatic than that. But then Santos met Michael Ross. Ross had confessed to murdering eight women in the early '80s and had spent 18 years on death row. Ross refused to appeal his case and told attorney T. R. Paulding that he wanted to die. Paulding wanted to help him. Santos was brought in to assist the state's public defenders in showing that Ross was not competent to make this decision.

"Ten days of bedlam" followed. He and Seeley asked the judge for a competency hearing, to show that Ross suffered from "death row syndrome"—a type of depression caused by long, demoralizing confinement. Expert witnesses persuaded Chief U.S. District Judge Robert Chatigny to issue a stay of execution. State prosecutors appealed. The Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit upheld. The prosecutors appealed again, this time to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the original stay by 5-4. Although he wasn't happy about it, Chatigny set a new execution date: Jan. 29 at 2 a.m. Eleven hours before Ross' execution, the attorneys involved participated in a conference call. Santos was on his way to a school in Vermont to pick up his son. As the call came in, his cell service stopped. He rushed to find a pay phone. No luck. Seeley covered for him.

Santos soon joined the conversation and told the judge that he had new information from a corrections officer at Northern Correctional Institution, where Ross had been incarcerated. The officer had helped Ross set up a law library and watched the inmate's mental health decline. It was convincing new evidence that showed the instability of Ross.

One hour before Ross was to be put to death, Chatigny called off the execution. But after a hearing in state court, the judge found Ross to be competent. Ross was executed in May 2005.

Still, Santos believes good came of the appeal. "It focused public attention on whether we should have the death penalty," he says. "I think there has been more focus on litigation to repeal it than there has ever been."

 

In his office, Santos stands in front of a giant painting of Theodore Roosevelt. For a moment, it's easy to see a similarity—a fullness of the jaw, a posture that indicates both men know what it's like to fight against long odds.

"This is the last line of defense for a person being accused by the state," Santos says of his work. "I'm motivated to be sure the person's rights are being protected. The state has a lot of resources and most people don't have much."        

 

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