Posted 4/8/12

Final Appeal

Dr. William Petit & supporters
Photo by Steve Kotchko

Barring some late-breaking development that alters the political dynamic at the State Capitol, it appears Connecticut’s death penalty law has exhausted its final appeal. The State Senate voted 20 to 16 last week to repeal the death penalty, and the Senate was the chamber where repeal was believed to face its toughest test.

The State House still must vote on the repeal bill. That could occur sometime this week, and chances for success are good. After final legislative approval, the bill would go to Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy, and Malloy is ready to sign the measure.

Last Friday, in an interview on the cable news network CNN, Malloy said he favors repeal because innocent people have been executed in other states, and there is a distinct racial bias in application of the death penalty.

The Governor also maintained that the death penalty in Connecticut is not “workable”. Said Malloy: “No one is going to be put to death under that statute in the forseeable future. You are more likely to die of old age in Connecticut on death row than anything else.”

Though much of the death penalty debate has been waged on moral grounds, Malloy took a more pragmatic approach in the CNN interview on why replacing the death penalty with life in prison, no possibility of release, makes sense. “We’ll actually save about $850,000 over the lifetime of that (convicted murderer) during incarceration because it’s cheaper to incarcerate than it is to pay for appeal after appeal after appeal. We’re talking about 20 years of appeals,” he said.

The Senate debate ran the gamut from moral soul-searching among some Senators who had been on the fence about how to vote, to accusations that the repeal effort is fraught with political maneuvering and gameplaying.
Sen. Edith Prague (D-Columbia) is an interesting case study. Prague has favored and opposed the death penalty over the years as her thinking on the issue evolved. She virtually single-handedly halted consideration of a similar repeal bill last year stating she could not vote to repeal the death penalty at that time because the trial of Cheshire home invasion slayer Joshua Komisarjevsky was ongoing, and she felt a vote for repeal could upset that situation. Prague believes Komisarjevsky deserves to be executed, along with his cohort Steven Hayes.

In the last year, Prague said she had time to think and is now very concerned that, in the future, the death penalty could put to death some innocent people in Connecticut. “The realization that there are people who are falsely accused scares me when I think that could lead to someone’s (execution),” Prague said. “I am going to vote for repeal, because I cannot stand the thought of being responsible for someone falsely accused and facing the death penalty.”

Sen. Edwin Gomes (D-Bridgeport) said “the death penalty is a deeply flawed policy and I welcome the vote to repeal it.” He said racial bias is rampant in deciding who prosecutors choose to go after with the death penalty versus a lesser penalty. “The death penalty is permanent, and when mistakes are made ( in criminal charges) there is no bringing an executed person back to life,” he added.

Further, Gomes said the claim that the death penalty helps deter crime is bogus. “16 states states without the death penalty have a homicide rate 25% lower than we do (in Connecticut),” he maintained. “The death penalty brings no closure to victims, no deterrent to crime, and it’s a costly situation.”

However, death penalty advocates fired back, with several pointing to apparent hyprocrisy in the so-called “prospective” nature of the repeal bill. The measure would apply only to criminal cases going forward and not to the 11 men already sentenced to death in Connecticut.

Sen. Len Suzio (R-Meriden) questioned the morality of repeal advocates who rail against execution, but are willing to say it’s permissible to go forward with the death sentence for the men now on death row. “If you can support the execution of the (Cheshire home invasion) killers for what they did five years ago, why couldn’t you support it if (something similar) could occur two years, or 20 years from now?,” he asked.

Malloy campaigned for governor in a very tight gubernatorial race in 2010 favoring the “prospective” repeal of the death penalty, and many of his critics claimed that was a calculated stance designed to balance support for repeal against the highly-charged atmosphere in the wake of the Cheshire killings.

During the Senate debate, Sen. Len Fasano (R-North Haven) claimed that the “prospective” repeal bill was put together to maximize support. He charged that a bill containing an outright and complete ban on the death penalty for past, present, and future murder cases “could not make it through this chamber”. Instead, said Fasano, “we’ve now crafted something for political purposes in order to carve out those 11 people (already on death row), so we can make it work.”

Some legal scholars and lawyers have stated that if Connecticut repeals its death penalty, attorneys for the 11 men on death row likely will file new appeals to have their sentences changed to life in prison, on the grounds that the state no longer has a death penalty, and executing them would become “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Dr. William Petit, the sole survivor of the Cheshire incident, has testified in the past on death penalty repeal bills but did not do so this year. That left many lawmakers and others wondering if he too was changing his mind about the death penalty. But that is not the case.

In the morning, on the day the Senate voted, Petit made a last minute plea to senators on the fence urging them to help defeat the repeal effort. He claimed the prospective elements of the bill would not survive legal tests. If lawmakers believe their vote for repeal would still guarantee the execution of his family’s killers “they are being led astray,” said Petit.

The plea did not work. The Senate spent more than 10 hours debating the repeal bill before approving it shortly after 2 a.m. last Thursday. House action could occur soon—perhaps Wednesday of this week. We will update this report if that vote takes place.

(On Apr. 11, the State House voted 86-62 in favor of repealing the death penalty in Connecticut.  This completes legislative action.  The bill now goes to Gov. Dannel Malloy, who will sign it into law.)

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