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Death Row Emptied in Connecticut

Eduardo Santiago’s death sentence and that of 10 others declared unconstitutional.

When Connecticut lawmakers abolished the death penalty in 2012 they only did so for those who would be charged with capital crimes after the effective date of the law. Now the state’s Supreme Court has ruled that the 11 inmates left on death row must be removed. The Associated Press has reported that

In a sharply divided 4-3 ruling, the court declared the death penalty violates the state’s constitution, “no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose.”

Concerns raised in this case mirror those recently raised by the U. S. Supreme Court in Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissent in Glossip and in the American Bar Association Kentucky Assessment Team’s report issued in December 2011: arbitrariness, discrimination, risk of executing the innocent.

The decision followed a two-year study of the death penalty system in Connecticut. The Hartford Courant reports that

The majority decision, written by Justice Richard N. Palmer, found flaws in the 2012 death penalty law, which banned “prospective” death sentences, those imposed after the effective date of the law. But the majority wrote that it chose to analyze capital punishment and impose abolition from a broader perspective.

After analysis of the law and “in light of the governing constitutional principles and Connecticut’s unique historical and legal landscape, we are persuaded that, following its prospective abolition, this state’s death penalty no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose,” Palmer wrote.

Why had lawmakers passed a bill that left the 11 men on death row? According to the Hartford Courant it was political compromise:

It was clear from its inception that the state’s “prospective” death penalty statute would undergo a bruising constitutional challenge. It was a compromise worked out between death penalty advocates and opponents in the aftermath of a horrific home invasion in Cheshire, during which two ex-convicts assaulted and murdered three members of the Petit family.

The resulting law, in the view of most political observers, was an expedient means of ending capital punishment in Connecticut while continuing to press for the execution of the two killers convicted in the Petit case, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky.

The legislative debate anticipated one of the points made by the Supreme Court majority — that “following a prospective only repeal, the imposition of the death penalty would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”

Even the state’s top prosecutor, Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane, predicted that a death penalty applied only to crimes committed before April 2012 would fail constitutional review.

Despite misgivings, the General Assembly pressed forward with a law that would enforce death sentences in the Petit case.

John Holdridge, an attorney who who represents Komisarjevsky, applauded the decision Thursday that effectively moved his client and Hayes off death row.

“We are extremely gratified by the court’s decision, which was compelled by the rule of law,” Holdridge said.

Kentucky lawmakers plan to keep pressing for repeal of the law here by introducing new legislation in 2016. Bills introduced in Kentucky have not included provisions that left current death row inmates on death row. Their sentences would be changed to life without parole.

Photo: Connecticut Department of Corrections

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