State Supreme Court Rules Death Penalty Unconstitutional

Connecticut's highest court has overturned the death penalty in the state by a 4-3 decision, saying it's unconstitutional.

“Today is a somber day where our focus should not be on the 11 men sitting on death row, but with their victims and those surviving families members.  My thoughts and prayers are with them during what must be a difficult day,” Gov. Dannel Malloy said in a statement.

Thursday's ruling means that the 11 men on the state's death row would no longer be subject to execution orders. Those inmates include Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, who were sentenced to die for killing a mother and her two daughters in a 2007 home invasion in Cheshire.

Dr. William Petit, the only survivor in the tragedy that claimed the lives of his wife and his daughters, released the following statement Thursday about the decision.

"The dissenting justices clearly state how the four members of the majority have disregarded keystones of our governmental structure such as the separation of powers and the role of judicial precedent to reach the decision they hand down today," Petit said in a written statement. "The death penalty and its application is a highly charged topic with profound emotional impact, particularly on the victims and their loved ones. Justice Espinosa, in her dissent especially, forcefully and compassionately recognizes that devastating impact."


The state had passed a law in 2012 to repeal the death penalty only for future crimes.

"When Connecticut’s law was passed, it did not apply to the 11 inmates currently serving on death row.  We will continue to look to the judicial system for additional guidance on this rule.  But it’s clear that those currently serving on death row will serve the rest of their life in a Department of Corrections facility with no possibility of ever obtaining freedom," Malloy said.

The Connecticut Department of Correction released a statement saying it will take time to review the decision with legal counsel.  

"Future decisions based on this ruling will be made accordingly, while ensuring appropriate support and communication is rendered to registered crime victims and safety and security remain a priority.  When we receive specific instructions from the trial court regarding changes to inmates’ sentences, we will of course proceed accordingly," Karen Martucci, acting director of external affairs, said in an e-mail.

The 92-page ruling released on Thursday comes in an appeal from Eduardo Santiago, whose attorneys had argued that any execution carried out after repeal would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Santiago faced the possibility of lethal injection for a 2000 murder-for-hire killing in West Hartford.

The Supreme Court decision says that lengthy delays in capital sentences undermine the deterrent effect and "spoil its capacity for satisfying retribution."  They also cited the possibility for irreversible error in trials because of poor representation, racial prejudice, prosecutorial misconduct or erroneous evidence.

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, issued a statement saying the court stepped "way out of line."

“If the court rejected the death penalty repeal legislation based on an argument that it violated equal protection by creating a separate class of citizens, the remedy should rightly be to strike it down, which would leave us with the death penalty intact  per prior law. Instead, the activist court chose to act as policymaker and expand the repeal beyond what was approved by state lawmakers," Fasano said in a statement. "I agree with Justice (Carmen) Espinosa’s dissent. This court has overstepped its constitutional obligations and allowed personal interpretations of what some may think are just and fair to overshadow the law as defined and enacted by the people."

In conclusion, the court decision says:

"In prospectively abolishing the death penalty, the legislature did not simply express the will of the people that it no longer makes sense to maintain the costly and unsatisfying charade of a capital punishment scheme in which no one ever receives the ultimate punishment. Public Act 12-5 also held a mirror up to Connecticut’s long, troubled history with capital punishment: the steady replacement by more progressive forms of punishment; the increasing inability to achieve legitimate penological purposes; the freakishness with which the sentence of death is imposed; the rarity with which it is carried out; and the racial, ethnic, and socio-economic biases that likely are inherent in any discretionary death penalty system. Because such a system fails to comport
with our abiding freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, we hold that capital punishment, as currently applied, violates the constitution of Connecticut. The judgment is reversed with respect to the imposition of a sentence of death and the case is remanded with direction to impose a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of release; the judgment is affirmed in all other respects."

In modern history, two people on death row in Connecticut have been executed.

"Just imagine that there are people that have been in Connecticut jails for decades with the death penalty who still have appeals pending," Malloy said.

Joseph Taborsky was executed in 1960 and Michael Ross was executed in 2005. In both cases, the men waived their rights to further appeals and chose to be executed.  

The ACLU of Connecticut issued a statement applauding the Supreme Court decision.

“This decision reflects an evolving norm against the death penalty. There are better ways to punish. Too often, the death penalty is applied arbitrarily and in a racially biased manner. This is a decision that falls on the right side of history,” David McGuire, legislative and policy director of the ACLU of Connecticut said.

 State Sen. Joseph Markley (R-Southington) was in the minority three years ago when he voted against abolishing the death penalty for future cases. He believes the decision by the state Supreme Court to reach back into the past and take the 11 inmates off death row sends the wrong message.

"I think it's a tragedy. And I think the fact it's a day the criminals are going to celebrate and families of victims are going to mourn shows us it's a mistake."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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