Steve Nunn pleads guilty to murder; sentenced to life

jhewlett@herald-leader.comJune 29, 2011 

Former state lawmaker Steve Nunn has pleaded guilty to intentional murder with an aggravating circumstance in the 2009 death of Amanda Ross, his former fiancée.

Nunn, who was set to go on trial in early August, entered the plea Tuesday morning in Fayette Circuit Court after negotiating a deal with prosecutors. Nunn waived formal sentencing, and Judge Pamela Goodwine sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Nunn also pleaded guilty to violating an emergency protective order, or domestic-violence order, and was given a 12-month sentence. The violation of that order was considered to be the "aggravator" in the murder case — and the reason Nunn had been facing the death penalty. The sentences are to run concurrently.

One of Nunn's attorneys, Warren Scoville, said the guilty pleas were made to avoid a possible death sentence for Nunn.

The pleas came as a surprise for many. They also put an end to a two-year legal case, which had drawn the attention of the national media, including the CBS show 48 Hours Mystery, ABC's 20/20, CNN and even Glamour magazine. The case grabbed headlines, in large part, because Nunn and Ross come from families that are very well-known.

Nunn is the son of a former Kentucky governor and a member of a family that has been well-known in national Republican politics, and Ross is the daughter of the late Terrell Ross, founder of the politically connected financial company Ross, Sinclaire & Associates.

On Tuesday, when Goodwine asked Nunn whether he, in fact, committed the murder, he responded, "I did."

When Goodwine asked whether Nunn had a statement, Scoville responded, "We have nothing."

Tuesday was the first time Nunn, 58, acknowledged that he shot and killed Ross, 29, on Sept. 11, 2009.

The commonwealth's attorney's office objected to Nunn being sentenced Tuesday because prosecutors wanted victims' impact statements to be heard in court.

Scoville said such statements could be entered into the court record, and the judge proceeded with the sentencing.

Scoville asked that Nunn be sent to the Kentucky State Reformatory at LaGrange right away, saying Nunn had minor medical problems that needed to be addressed.

"I'm sure that you're well aware of the conditions in the Lexington jail, and I think with Steve Nunn's medical problems, he's best taken care of in a prison facility," said defense attorney Bette Niemi, former head of the capital trial branch of the state Department of Public Advocacy who has been successful at keeping dozens of murder defendants off Death Row.

Scoville said after the hearing that a conviction on first-degree manslaughter was the best-case scenario for Nunn, and that even with that charge, Nunn would have spent the rest of his life in prison.

"When we got closer to trial, I think we scored some points with our (extreme emotional disturbance) defense," Scoville said.

Scoville said Nunn had the greatest respect for the Ross family. He said Amanda Ross's mother, Diana, agreed with the plea.

"I think, as in most capital cases, plea negotiations probably started from the very beginning," Niemi said. "I think, one, he (Nunn) wanted to accept responsibility. And, two, I think a trial would have been extra painful for his family and Amanda Ross's family. I don't believe Steve Nunn wanted anybody to have to go through that."

Scoville, who has known Nunn for 20 years, said that he loved Nunn and that Nunn was "taking it like a man."

"He is a good man. Good people sometimes do bad things," Scoville said.

When asked for comment just after the hearing, Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Larson just walked by. Asked again later for a comment, Larson said he did not have one.

Diana Ross said she was withholding comment until she finished her victim impact statement for the court record. But she did say it was difficult to express "the hurt that has been put upon our family."

Ross family spokesman Dale Emmons thanked the commonwealth's attorney for his professionalism and Goodwine for what Emmons called a "just sentence" for Nunn.

"Diana has a lot she'd like to say," Emmons said. "I think she's a little shell-shocked at the quick finality, or what seems to be quick, although it's been going on for months. It came to an end quicker than we thought it was going to.

"There is some sense of relief that we now have some finality to this. We thought the marathon was going on for several more months."

A rocky start

Nunn, a former state representative and a 2003 Kentucky gubernatorial candidate, and Ross, the director of financial standards and examination for the state Department of Insurance, began dating in September 2007, according to court records.

Nunn moved into her home in March 2008. He moved out in October that year, shortly after they had become engaged, because the "relationship had deteriorated," according to Nunn. But they remained in contact.

In February 2009, Ross alleged that Nunn, while at her home one night, struck her in the face four times and threw her against a lamp, breaking it, and then he threw a cup of bourbon in her face.

Nunn said during a hearing on the matter that Ross blocked his path to prevent him from leaving her home and that he struggled for 20 minutes to reach the stairs to her home. He said Ross was "strong like a bull" because she worked out with a personal trainer twice a week.

Nunn said Ross threw him into the lamp and then made him vacuum up the mess.

He said Ross offered to let him leave if Nunn let Ross strike him in the face. She did that, cutting his face with her ring, he said.

Ross, in her domestic violence complaint, said: "I called police because this has happened many times before."

The day after the domestic violence petition was filed, Nunn was placed on unpaid administrative leave from his job as deputy secretary of the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services. He resigned from the post, a job that included oversight of domestic violence programs, in March.

A tragic ending

Nunn was ordered to have no contact with Ross for a year and not possess a gun while the protective order was in effect.

Nunn entered an Alford plea — he admitted no guilt, but acknowledged there was enough evidence to produce a guilty verdict — in August 2009 to a misdemeanor domestic violence assault charge.

Ross was found shot, lying in the parking lot outside her home, at Opera House Square townhouses, on Sept. 11, 2009. She was pronounced dead at University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital.

Nunn was taken into police custody at Cosby Cemetery in Hart County, where his parents are buried, several hours after Ross was shot.

Nunn had slit his wrists after putting mementos on his parents' graves, police said. The owner of a Glasgow monument business said Nunn had been to his shop the day before he was found in the cemetery. Nunn stopped by because he wanted to add some details to his gravestone, he said.

According to authorities, Nunn fired a .38-caliber handgun once into the air as six police officers approached him at the cemetery. Nunn was later charged with six counts of wanton endangerment of a police officer. On Tuesday, Scoville said those charges might be dropped.

Days after that shooting, Nunn was charged in Lexington with murder and violating a protective order.

"I just think it's a sad situation for everybody ... a tragic situation. I wish there had been some sort of intervention, but it just didn't happen," Niemi said.

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