Connecticut repeals death penalty
Gov. Dannel Malloy praised his state's legislature for taking capital punishment off the books in Connecticut.Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy signed the state's death penalty repeal bill into law today, but the new law will not affect the 11 convicted killers already on death row including the two men who killed the wife and daughters of Dr. William Petit.
The bill signing made Connecticut the 17th state to abolish the death penalty.
"This afternoon I signed legislation that will, effective today, replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of release as the highest form of legal punishment in Connecticut," Malloy said in a statement released after he signed the bill behind closed doors.
"It is a moment for sober reflection, not celebration," he wrote.
The new law replaces the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. It abolished the death penalty for future cases, but it does not affect sentences for the 11 inmate's currently on death row in the state.
An isolated and vacant cell block at the Osborn prison in Somers is expected to be used for the death row inmates who are now on death row, according to ABC News' Hartford affiliate WTNH. The inmates will be kept isolated from the general prison population and will have tightly restricted privileges.Malloy said he signed the bill because working as a prosecutor, he "learned firsthand that our system of justice is very imperfect" and that it was "subject to the fallibility of those who participate in it."
The second factor that led to his decision today was the "unworkability" of Connecticut's death penalty law.
The state has put to death two people in the past 52 years and both had volunteered for it. He said that the state's residents pay for countless fruitless appeals as the cases receive publicity he did not believe they deserve.
"The 11 men currently on death row in Connecticut are far more likely to die of old age than they are to be put to death," he said.
Malloy also acknowledged that the campaign to abolish the death penalty was led by dozens of family members of murder victims, some of whom were present when he signed the bill.
Not all family members have been supportive of repealing the death penalty.
One of the strongest voices against repealing the death penalty has been Dr. William Petit Jr., the lone survivor of a 2007 Cheshire home invasion that resulted in the murders of his wife and two daughters.
The wife was raped and strangled, one of the daughters was molested and both girls were left tied to their beds as the house was set on fire.
The two men convicted of the crime, Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, are currently on death row.
"There is no such thing as closure when your loved one is savagely taken from you," Petit -- along with his sister Johanna Petit Chapman -- wrote in a statement to the New Haven Register in March. "There can, however, be adequate and just punishment and that is the death penalty."
The House of Representatives voted in favor of the bill 86-62 late Wednesday night.
The bill would abolish the death penalty and replace it with a maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release. It would not affect the sentences of the 11 inmates already on Connecticut's death row.
The proposal cleared its biggest hurdle last week when it won approval in the state Senate.
Connecticut has executed only one inmate in 51 years.
The death penalty has been on the books in Connecticut for more than 150 years.
Conn. Senate OKs death penalty repeal bill
Hours before the House debate Wednesday, repeal proponents had urged their legislators to follow the lead of the Senate. Milford resident Dawn Mancarella, whose mother, Joyce Masury, was murdered in 1996, said she represented more than 180 people who have lost loved ones to murder and were backing repeal. She said they do not believe the death penalty helps them.
"Some of us have seen the loss of their loved ones all but ignored while capital cases get months, or even years, of attention," she said during a morning news conference. "Some of us have endured capital cases and are horrified that the death penalty ensnares them in a never-ending wait for execution."
An effort to repeal the state's death penalty failed to clear the Senate last year as one of two men charged in a brutal 2007 home invasion was still facing trial. Dr. William Petit Jr., whose wife and two daughters were killed in the attack, lobbied lawmakers to keep the death penalty in place.
The two killers in that case are now on death row, and officials including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy insisted as a condition of their support for repeal that the law would not affect inmates already condemned to die. But Petit and some Republican critics say lawyers for death row inmates would inevitably use the new law as grounds for appeals.
Connecticut has carried out only one execution in 51 years, when serial killer Michael Ross was administered a lethal injection in 2005 after he gave up his appeal rights.
In the past five years, four states have abolished the death penalty — New Mexico, Illinois, New Jersey and New York. Repeal proposals are also pending in several other states including Kansas and Kentucky, while advocates in California have gathered enough signatures for an initiative that could go before the voters in November.
Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy signed the legislation without fanfare behind closed doors, saying in a statement it was "a moment for sober reflection, not celebration.
"With the law, which replaces the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole, Connecticut joins 16 other states and the District of Columbia that do not allow capital punishment.
Illinois, New Mexico and New Jersey all voted to abolish the death penalty in recent years, and New York's death penalty law was declared unconstitutional in 2004.The repeal in Connecticut applies only to future sentences, and the 11 men on its death row now still face execution.
However some legal experts have said defence attorneys could use the repeal measure to win life sentences for those inmates.
They include two men convicted of a grisly home invasion attack in 2007 that killed a mother and her two daughters. The only survivor, Dr. William Petit, who lost his wife and two children, had spoken out against the repeal.
About 30 family members of murder victims, clergy and anti-death penalty activists were in the governor's office for the signing.
"Some people were in tears when it was signed, and they were very thankful to the governor," said Ben Jones, executive director of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, who attended the event.
Opponents of capital punishment said the move in Connecticut fuels momentum for broader abolition.
"We have another state saying, 'We've tried this experiment and the death penalty has failed,'" Shari Silberstein, executive director of Equal Justice USA, said in a statement.
Other state legislatures are considering bills to abolish the death penalty, and Oregon's governor has said he would halt all executions on his watch.
A repeal measure has qualified for the ballot in California, home to nearly a quarter of the nation's death row inmates. Connecticut's Democratic-controlled Senate and House of Representatives approved the repeal earlier this month.
Connecticut has executed only one person, in 2005, since the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
The executed convict, Michael Ross, had abandoned his appeals.
Calling capital punishment "one of the most compelling and vexing issues of our time," the governor said he came to oppose capital punishment while working as a prosecutor.
"I learned firsthand that our system of justice is very imperfect," he said. "I came to believe that doing away with the death penalty was the only way to ensure it would not be unfairly imposed."
He also cited what he called its "unworkability."
"The people of this state pay for appeal after appeal, and then watch time and again as defendants are marched in front of the cameras, giving them a platform of public attention they don't deserve," he said.
"The 11 men currently on death row in Connecticut are far more likely to die of old age than they are to be put to death."
The vote, after more than two decades of debate and the 2009 veto of a similar bill by the governor at the time, M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, came against the backdrop of one of the state’s most horrific crimes: a 2007 home invasion in Cheshire in which Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, were held hostage and murdered, two of the three raped, and their house set afire by two habitual criminals who are now on death row. Ms. Hawke-Petit’s husband, Dr. William A. Petit Jr., who was badly beaten but escaped, has since been an ardent advocate for keeping the death penalty.
The bill exempts the 11 men currently on death row, including Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven J. Hayes, the men convicted of the Petit murders.
The measure was approved by a vote of 86 to 62, largely along party lines.
The legislation will make life in prison without possibility of parole the state’s harshest punishment. It mandates that those given life without parole be incarcerated separately from other inmates and be limited to two hours a day outside the prison cell.
In a statement released late Wednesday night, Governor Malloy said the repeal put Connecticut in the same position as nearly every other industrialized nation on the death penalty.
“For decades, we have not had a workable death penalty,” he said, noting that only one person has been executed in Connecticut in the last 52 years. “Going forward, we will have a system that allows us to put these people away for life, in living conditions none of us would want to experience. Let’s throw away the key and have them spend the rest of their natural lives in jail.”
Thirteen proposed amendments from supporters of capital punishment, most of which would have allowed the death penalty in certain cases, were defeated during the debate, in which many legislators told personal stories of the effects of violent crime. The lawmakers also invoked a wide variety of people, from mass murderers to Immanuel Kant to Sir Thomas More.
State Representative Patricia M. Widlitz, a Democrat from Branford and Guilford, said that like many members, she was torn over her vote. But she recalled a murder in her community and the difficulty residents went through in explaining it to local children. “I just couldn’t reconcile telling them that it’s O.K. for the government to kill after teaching them that killing is wrong, it’s unacceptable, it’s immoral,” she said.
She added that the killer was sentenced to life without parole. “I think in many ways, that is a death sentence, with no chance of parole, no chance of doing anything with your life,” she said.
Republican critics of the bill said the exemption for those currently awaiting execution cast a cloud over the vote, both because it undercut the moral argument of death penalty opponents and because future appeals or government action had the potential to spare the 11 men.
“Let’s not mislead the public; let’s not mislead ourselves” said the House minority leader, Lawrence Cafero Jr., of Norwalk. “If it is the will of this chamber that this state is no longer in the business of executing people, then let’s say it and do it. You cannot have it both ways.”
But Democratic legislators — swayed by at least 138 cases nationally in which people sentenced to death were later exonerated and by arguments that the death penalty is imposed in a capricious, discriminatory manner and is not a deterrent to crime — voted for repeal. They noted that a repeal in New Mexico in 2009 that also exempted those already on death row had thus far withstood challenges.
After Connecticut’s repeal, 33 states will have capital punishment, along with the United States government when it prosecutes cases in the federal courts. Voters in California will be asked in November whether to abolish the death penalty in that state.
Capital punishment in Connecticut dates to colonial times. From 1639 to 2005, it performed 126 executions, first by hanging, then by the electric chair, and since 1973, by lethal injection. But since 1976, when the Supreme Court allowed the resumption of executions, there has been just one person executed in the state: Michael Bruce Ross, a serial killer who voluntarily gave up his right to further appeals and was put to death in 2005. The last person involuntarily put to death, in 1960, was Joseph (Mad Dog) Taborsky, who committed a string of robberies and killings.
Of the 1,289 executions since 1976 in the United States, 935 were in seven Southern and border states. Texas alone accounts for 481 executions.
In the Connecticut Senate, where passage seemed most in doubt, the bill was approved 20 to 16 on April 5, with 2 Democrats and all 14 Republicans opposed. Democrats have a majority in both chambers of the General Assembly.
Before that vote, Dr. Petit spoke at a news conference where he called for the Senate not to pass the bill. “We believe in the death penalty because we believe it is really the only true just punishment for certain heinous and depraved murders,” he said.
The Petit murders were cited by several opponents of the repeal, most vividly by Representative Al Adinolfi, a Republican from Cheshire, Hamden and Wallingford, who said he witnessed the chaos at the Petits’ smoldering house that day. He recounted gruesome details of the crime in arguing against the repeal.
“And we say here that Komisarjevsky and Hayes don’t deserve the death penalty? Shame on us,” he said. “They do deserve the penalty, and so do many others.”
But Democrats in favor of the bill cited support from many families of murder victims and the fact that capital punishment has long been banned by nearly all of the world’s democracies. In a review of 34 years of Connecticut death penalty cases, Prof. John Donohue of Stanford Law School concluded that “arbitrariness and discrimination are defining features of the state’s capital punishment regime.”
The political fight over the bill could persist long after the vote. Republicans are likely to put the issue in play in the fall when all 36 State Senate and 151 State House seats are up for election. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 62 percent of Connecticut residents thought abolishing the death penalty was “a bad idea,” though polls over time have found respondents split relatively evenly if given the option of life without parole as an alternative to executions.
In the final remarks in the debate late Wednesday, the House majority leader, Brendan Sharkey, a Democrat from Hamden, said the death penalty offered a false promise that did more harm than good.
“I believe that we, as human beings, should not create laws that reciprocate the evil perpetrated against society,” Mr. Sharkey said. “Those laws don’t protect us.”