A graduate of Stonington High School, St. Michael’s College and the University of Connecticut School of Law, Purtill was admitted to the Connecticut Bar in 1953. He served as Stonington’s town clerk from 1963 to 1979, and according to Ladwig, he was also the town attorney. In addition, he had a general law practice in Pawcatuck at that time.
In the last months of his tenure in the town clerk’s office, he chose Ladwig, who had a clerical job at Town Hall, to be the assistant town clerk. Ladwig credits Purtill for putting her on the path to her career as Town Clerk.
Before his work in Town Hall, Purtill, a Democrat, also served two terms in the General Assembly in Hartford as a state representative from Stonington.
In 1979, Gov. Ella T. Grasso appointed Purtill to the state Superior Court. He served in the New London Judicial District for a year before moving to the Middlesex Judicial District. Between 1979 and 1996, Purtill presided over courts in the New London, Middlesex, Hartford, and New Haven judicial districts. In 1995, he was named administrative judge of the New London Judicial District.
Purtill was appointed a judge trial referee in 1997, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. A judge trial referee is a retired judge who has been designated by the chief justice of the Supreme Court to hear certain cases.
“Judge Joseph J. Purtill’s passing is a great loss to the Connecticut judiciary,” noted Judge Elliot N. Solomon, Connecticut’s deputy chief court administrator. “He heard criminal, civil, family and juvenile matters throughout a distinguished career of 35 years on the bench.
Although he presided over many high profile matters, Judge Purtill understood that every case was important to the people involved and handled each matter with dignity and respect for all involved.”
Among the legal opinions Purtill issued over the years was to allow the serial killer Michael Ross, who killed eight young women between 1981 and 1984, to dismiss his public defenders and hasten his own execution. Purtill made that decision reluctantly, according to news reports at the time. Ross was executed in 2005.
Purtill was also a member of the three-judge panel that acquitted Stonington electrician Charles Buck in the murder of his wife, Leslie. Buck allowed Purtill to be appointed to the panel despite what Superior Court Judge Patrick J. Clifford said might be a conflict of interest — at one time in the past, Purtill had represented Leslie in a divorce case.