HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A push to abolish Connecticut’s death penalty is facing a key hurdle with a vote Wednesday in the state Senate, where supporters say they have the votes to kick-start the process toward repeal.
The legislation would eliminate capital punishment for all future cases, but would not directly affect sentences of the 11 inmates currently on Connecticut’s death row. Many officials insisted on that as a condition of their support for repeal in a state where two men were recently sentenced to death in a brutal, highly publicized 2007 home invasion.
If the measure is passed by the Senate, it will go the House of Representatives, where it is considered to have a high level of support, and then Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat who has said he would sign it into law.
“We intend to take a historic step today. We intend for Connecticut to become the 17th state to repeal the death penalty in the United States,” said Senate President Donald Williams Jr., of Brooklyn.
Lawmakers were poised to take up death penalty repeal legislation last year, but decided not to hold a vote in the Senate after some senators voiced concern about taking action when the second of two suspects in a 2007 deadly home invasion in Cheshire had yet to be convicted. Now that both men have been sentenced to death, the General Assembly is again considering a prospective appeal that theoretically won’t apply to them.
But opponents of the bill predicted the repeal will be the basis for numerous legal appeals by lawyers for death row inmates.
“The idea that the death penalty can be repealed prospectively only and that our actions today will ensure that the 11 murderers on death row in Connecticut will one day face execution is a mere fallacy,” said Senate Minority John McKinney, R-Fairfield. “We know and it is undisputed that appeals will be brought almost immediately, we’ve been told, on behalf of those 11 death row inmates to commute their sentences.”
Dr. William Petit Jr., the sole survivor of the home invasion that left his wife and two daughters dead, appeared at the Capitol on Wednesday with his sister and father, hoping to talk to some of the senators who agreed to oppose efforts last year to repeal the death penalty.
Connecticut has carried out only one execution in 51 years, when serial killer Michael Ross was administered lethal injection in 2005.
In the last five years, four states have repealed the death penalty — New Mexico, Illinois, New Jersey and New York.
In the hours before the afternoon Senate session, Democrats proposed an amendment establishing harsh prison conditions for inmates who would have been candidates for the death penalty. It would separate inmate housing, allow only non-contact visitation and mandate cell movement every 90 days to replicate conditions on death row.
“This is a severe and certain punishment. This does almost exactly mirror the conditions for those prisoners on death row,” Williams said.
Senate Republicans, however, criticized the Democrats’ amendment, with their leader calling it a political tool to flip some votes.
In the Judiciary Committee’s debate on the death penalty bill, Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, raised a similar amendment that failed earlier this session.
Support for the death penalty remains high in Connecticut, where a Quinnipiac University poll last month found 62 percent of residents do not support repeal. But state lawmakers on both sides of the issue have raised concerns on what the poll is actually reflecting, and the governor has said people should follow their conscience on the issue.
Leo C. Arnone, the Department of Correction commissioner, said if the bill passes, he will work to make sure wouldn’t increase costs to taxpayers.
“I don’t want this to cost us a lot of money, but I want to be able to have the (sentence) to have the same effect and results,” he said.
Arnone said the amendment’s proposals would allow inmates convicted under the bill’s new charge of “murder with special circumstances” to be placed in different high security prisons in Connecticut. He said this would help lower costs as segregated wings in other facilities are already staffed and monitored.
Currently, death row inmates are housed at the Northern Correctional Institution in Somers.
Executions nationwide have decreased steadily since they hit an all-time high of 98 executions in 1999 and have averaged at 44 a year since 2007, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.