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New Haven Public Defender Thomas Ullmann’s latest challenge is keeping accused murderer John Mills off death row. It took a little R&R after his hard-fought, but ultimately unsuccessful, battle in one of this year’s most high-profile murder trials. But New Haven Public Defender Thomas Ullmann is rejuvenated and ready to jump into what may be his toughest assignment yet — keeping accused murderer John Mills off death row. “It is an awesome responsibility,” Ullmann said of defending Mills, who faces three counts of capital felony, three counts of murder and six counts of felony murder, along with several other charges, in the deaths of Guilford resident Kitty Kleinkauf and her two young children. “I am going to make sure that [Mills isn't sentenced to death.] Whatever I have to do � to prevent that from happening, I will,” Ullmann vowed. AN UPHILL BATTLE Police allege that Mills, 28, killed Kleinkauf, his aunt, and his young cousins two years ago — stabbing them each at least 30 times — after breaking into their home in a quest to find money for drugs. When he was arrested for the three murders in December of 2000, Mills led the police to the body of Mindy Elizabeth Leigh — a Guilford acquaintance — whom he confessed to strangling after the two had a fight over sex three months earlier. Mills, who already had a lengthy criminal record prior to those incidents, faces murder charges in a separate trial for allegedly killing Leigh. According to Patrick Culligan, chief of the public defender’s capital and trial services unit, Assistant Public Defender Barry Butler will join Ullmann in defending Mills. “Although Tom does not have prior experience defending against the death penalty, I know that he will be exceptionally well-prepared to defend Mills if we are required to go to trial,” Culligan said. “Tom is the consummate criminal defense attorney. He is a dedicated champion for each and every client he represents.” Still, Culligan admitted there was “no question” that defending Mills would be an uphill battle. “The case will be very arduously prosecuted by the state,” Culligan said. “The facts of the case will make it very difficult to win a life sentence if [Mills] is found guilty.” Ullmann said it was premature for him to discuss Mills’ defense strategy. MUCH NEEDED BREAK Ullmann said he is looking forward to the challenge, especially in light of a recent disappointing loss in Edward Grant’s murder trial. Earlier this month, a jury sentenced the 60-year-old Grant to 20 years to life in prison for the 1973 murder of Concetta “Penney” Serra. Ullmann said he plans to bring an appeal in the case. He and other attorneys on Grant’s defense team attempted to cast doubt on the reliability of DNA and fingerprint tests that connected Grant to Serra’s death. They also were unsuccessful in persuading the jury that two other suspects investigated by police could have committed the crime. While working on Grant’s defense, Ullmann also helped defend former Branford selectman Anthony “Gene” Bontatibus, who was accused of setting fire to his flooring business on Thanksgiving Day in 1996. Firefighter Eddie Ramos was killed during the blaze. The defense argued that the fire was accidental and could have been caused by a natural gas leak or an electrical problem. State prosecutors dropped arson and arson-murder charges against Bontatibus last April after failing to attain a guilty verdict despite three trials in the case. The two assignments left Ullmann in need of a well-deserved vacation. “Sometimes you need to step away, whether you win or lose a case,” he said. “You’ll burn out if you don’t take care of yourself.” Ullmann spent time traveling over the summer, though some of it was in connection to a national death penalty conference. “It was my summer of recovery,” the veteran public defender said.

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