Kerry Alys Robinson

Life and legacy of Tom Ullmann

May 23, 2018

Hundreds of people attended the funeral of my friend and neighbor of more than 20 years, Tom Ullmann. Rabbi Herb Brockman welcomed us, all brokenhearted, to Congregation Mishkan Israel by remarking on how fitting it was to remember Tom in the same sacred space in which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had once preached about justice. 

Brockman spoke about what Tom had taught him about his own faith by the manner in which Tom lived his life. He concluded the deeply moving service by referencing the Torah and drawing our attention to the great sanhedrin, an assembly of 70 judges and one high priest, serving as the supreme Jewish legislative and judicial court. 

Remarkably, if there was a unanimous ruling against the accused, the court could not carry out the verdict. Unanimity meant that there was not even one person to argue on behalf of the accused and the absence of such a voice rendered it a murderous court. 

The reference left us with the image of Tom, thousands of years later, as that one crucial voice, advocating for the accused, appealing for mercy and comporting himself in the courthouse with the highest levels of ethics and righteousness.

Tom was the chief public defender in New Haven, Connecticut, for 25 years, overseeing some of the gravest murder cases in the state, often volunteering to take them on personally to spare his colleagues from such a grueling responsibility. 

In his role as public defender, he was indefatigable in his defense of the most vulnerable, a paragon of social, economic and racial justice, the consummate lawyer without whose integrity and dedication the judicial system fails.

At neighborhood parties we would talk about the many friends on the national scene we had in common, most of whom were Catholic religious sisters working, as Tom was, to end the death penalty in the United States. What Tom’s professional life had shown him was how truly unjust and deleterious to society capital punishment is — from a moral, economic, judicial, ethical, psychological and religious standpoint. 

His discourse at neighborhood parties enthralled me and I was often reminded of the first time I met Sister of St. Joseph Helen Prejean. She was giving a talk on the death penalty at Yale Law School, where Tom taught, and said, “We may reach a point as a society where we truly believe some deserve to die for the truly heinous crimes they have committed, but do we deserve to be the ones who kill them?”

I have never forgotten her question. Do we deserve to be the executioner?

Tom had great respect for Sister Helen, who believes that “the movement to abolish the death penalty needs the religious community because the heart of religion is about compassion, human rights and the indivisible dignity of each human person made in the image of God.”

Karen Clifton and Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy of Catholic Mobilizing Network work to end the death penalty, promote restorative justice and restore people who are broken by the effects of violence. They are fond of quoting Pope Francis, who put it this way: “Every sentence must be open to the horizon of hope. This is why the death penalty is neither humane nor Christian. Every sentence must be open to hope, to reintegration.”

On Aug. 25, 2012, thanks in large measure to Tom’s lifelong advocacy, the death penalty was abolished in Connecticut, replaced with life in prison without the possibility of parole. This is among the lasting legacies Tom leaves behind. 

For everyone who knew him — his clients, colleagues, judges and prosecutors, students, friends, neighbors, his extraordinary wife, his sons, daughter-in-law and sister — he also left this legacy: a lasting inspiration to do what is just, act with mercy, care passionately, work tirelessly, be joyful and make this a better world. 


  • capital punishment
  • death penalty