Posted 4/16/12

Long Journey

Death Penalty Debate
State House

Photo by Steve Kotchko

At a news conference just hours before the State House last week debated an end to Connecticut’s death penalty, State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield (D-New Haven), lead legislator in the House on the issue, told reporters:  “Getting to this point has been a long journey.”

During the debate, some lawmakers pointed out just how long the struggle to end state-sponsored executions has been in the “land of steady habits.”  They noted that Connecticut’s dalliance with the death penalty goes back to the 1600’s when several women were hanged as witches.  Though the witchcraft hysteria waned in New England in time, the death sentences carried out in Connecticut obviously could not be reversed.  That point was a central theme as the State House moved to do away with the death penalty last week.

State Rep. Terry Backer (D-Stratford) said state government is “imperfect” and often mistakes are made in crafting legislation but in most cases “we are able to go back and fix those things.”  However, he said when a death sentence is ordered and carried out “there is no way to put them back.”  Backer claimed that in the United States, since the 1970s, there have been 289 post-conviction exonerations of individuals convicted of capital felony murder and “headed to the gallows”.

The only retort to that statement in House debate seemed to be that most lawmakers and others are convinced that the 11 men currently on death row in Connecticut are guilty.  Several death penalty advocates said Connecticut’s law is so strict in its construction, that prosecutors seek the death penalty only in cases deemed to be virtually open and shut.

Several lawmakers detailed the horrific crimes that put the 11 men on death row, and used that testimony as a major reason why there should be a death penalty on the books to punish individuals whose actions revile society.

The bill doing away with the death penalty in Connecticut would create a new offense, dubbed “murder with special circumstances” and the sentence for that crime would be “life imprisonment without the possibility of release”.

State Rep. Gerald Fox (D-Stamford), co-chair of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, claimed persons convicted of this new murder charge in the future would not be receiving easy treatment during their lifetime of imprisonment.  They would likely be designated for so-called “special circumstances high security status” in a maximum security facility.

“The inmate would be housed separately, the inmate’s movements would be escorted, the inmate would be moved to a new cell at least every 90 days, and at least two searches of the inmate’s cell would be made each week, and no contact would be permitted during the inmate’s social visits,” Fox explained.  He added the inmate would have no more than two hours of activity out of the cell each day.

Critics of the death penalty repeal bill questioned whether those tough conditions would be appealed to the courts by the inmates’ attorneys.  They also criticized the duality of the repeal bill.  The proposal affects only murder cases occurring after the bill becomes law.  Technically the 11 men now on Connecticut’s death row are still slated for execution.

House Republican leader Lawrence Cafero (R-Norwalk) predicted that all death row inmates would appeal their sentences to the State Supreme Court soon after the death penalty is repealed, claiming it would be “cruel and unusual punishment” to proceed with their executions in a state that no longer has a death penalty on the books.

Supporters of repeal said death row inmates, as always, are free to file any appeals they deem valid, but there is no guarantee the courts would rule in their favor, so their sentences could stand.

Cafero said that scenario shows the hypocrisy of the repeal bill which he contends was crafted to make it politically palatable to the largest number of lawmakers possible to assure final passage.  Several critics have claimed some lawmakers, inclined to vote for repeal, balked at the prospect of letting the death row inmates off the hook—especially the Cheshire home invasion murderers Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky.

“How can you say, in your heart and with your vote, that it should no longer be the (state) policy to commit anyone to death—and yet at the same time say ‘except for these 11 guys,’ ” Cafero asked.  “How do you justify that?”

The unstated reality is that most lawmakers believe that either death row inmates will appeal to have their sentences changed to life in prison, or Connecticut’s drawn-out death penalty will be allowed to continue its glacial progress.  In either case, the likelihood is no one will be executed.  As Gov. Dannel Malloy stated several times, the only person executed in recent times was serial killer Michael Ross—and that occurred only because he volunteered, and openly decided to end his appeals.

The House spent more than nine hours debating the death penalty repeal bill, though early votes on Republican amendments designed to derail the measure all failed, indicating final passage was not in doubt.  Still, one by one, lawmakers stood and made their points, for and against repeal.  Many offered personal stories that often went far afield.  Under normal circumstances, the House Speaker or his deputies would step in and order the lawmaker to stick to the bill—but in the case of this emotional issue—a lot of leeway was granted.

State Rep. Arthur O’Neill (D-Southbury) insisted the death penalty serves a useful purpose in controlling crime.  “By having the death penalty, we have the strong possibility that we are going to deter someone (from killing) and save a life,” he said.  Rep. Marie Kirkley-Bey (D-Hartford) rejected the deterrent effect, stating:  “I don’t know anybody who is going to say: ‘I’m not going to kill today because (Connecticut) has the death penalty—I don’t believe that—and if you do, you’re crazy.”

Some lawmakers, including Rep. Al Adinolfi (R-Cheshire), maintained that the legislature’s priorities are out of whack in pushing to do away with the death penalty.  “We in this chamber (the House) are showing sympathy for the murderers and not sympathy for the victims’ families,” he said.  “We’re wrong—shame on us.”

Others, including Rep. Patricia Widlitz (D-Guilford), said the death penalty must be abolished so Connecticut can join most other industrialized nations in setting a moral example for future generations.  “(We are) trying to teach (young people) that killing is wrong, unacceptable, and immoral—so how can you explain to them that it is alright for the government to kill?,” she asked.   

When the debate ended shortly before 11 p.m. on April 11, lawmakers took the anticipated step and voted 86-62 in favor of eliminating Connecticut’s death penalty.  This was not a partisan vote.  Though Republican leaders argued against repeal, eight GOP House members voted to end the death penalty.  Though Democratic leaders pushed for repeal, 19 Democrats voted against repeal.

The measure is heading for the desk of Gov. Dannel Malloy.  As he has stated many times in the state, and on national television programs, Malloy will sign the bill—officially doing away with the death penalty in Connecticut.

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