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New Penalty Phase Ordered In West Hartford Murder-For-Hire Case

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File photo of a gavel (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

File photo of a gavel (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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By DAVE COLLINS, Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ The Connecticut Supreme Court on Monday overturned the death sentence of a man convicted in a murder-for-hire plot that promised him a broken snowmobile, saying the trial judge wrongly withheld key evidence from the jury.

Justices ordered a new penalty phase in the case of former Torrington resident Eduardo Santiago, 32, who was one of three men convicted in the fatal shooting of 45-year-old Joseph Niwinski in West Hartford in 2000. The other defendants pleaded guilty and are serving life in prison.

The court, however, upheld Santiago’s conviction. A new penalty phase hasn’t been scheduled yet.

The Supreme Court said the trial judge, Elliot Solomon, failed to disclose “significant and relevant” mitigating evidence against the death penalty during the trial. Justices said Solomon released only limited portions of a confidential file kept by the state Department of Children and Families that detailed Santiago’s troubled childhood, which included beatings and sexual molestation.

“Although the trial court properly protected the defendant’s due process rights under the fourteenth amendment to the United States constitution when it reviewed the department’s file … the scope of that court’s review nevertheless failed to disclose potentially mitigating evidence relevant under the eighth amendment, thus requiring that the defendant receive a new penalty phase hearing,” Justice Flemming L. Norcott Jr. wrote in the ruling.

All seven members of the court were in favor of overturning the death sentence, but Justice Lubbie Harper Jr. wrote in a concurring opinion that he believed the death penalty is unconstitutional and that Santiago should be resentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.

In Connecticut, juries that convict defendants of capital felony must then consider whether to recommend the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of release by deciding whether proven aggravating factors outweigh proven mitigating factors.

Ten other men are on Connecticut’s death row.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and lawmakers repealed the state’s death penalty in April, but only for future crimes. State prosecutors and legal experts say they expect lawyers for death row inmates to file new appeals challenging their death sentences based on the repeal.

Before Monday’s ruling, Santiago’s public defender, Mark Rademacher, told The Hartford Courant that he was seeking new arguments before the state Supreme Court to address the effect of the repeal on Santiago. It’s not clear how the new decision will affect Rademacher’s request.

Rademacher didn’t immediately return a message Monday. The prosecutor in the appeal, Marjorie Allen Dauster, said she couldn’t immediately comment because she was reviewing the ruling.

Prosecutors said Santiago agreed to kill Niwinski in exchange for a pink-striped snowmobile with a broken clutch in 2000, claims that Santiago denied. Santiago was sentenced to lethal injection in 2005 after a jury convicted him, despite no clear evidence that he was the one who pulled the rifle trigger.

Prosecutors say the plot to kill Niwinski was hatched by Mark Pascual, who owned a shop in Torrington that sold snowmobiles, boats and ATVs. Authorities say Pascual was infatuated with Niwinski’s girlfriend, believed Niwinski was abusing her and her children and wanted him dead.

Santiago and a friend, Matthew Tyrell, admitted going into Niwinski’s home the night of the murder, but both men claimed the other was the shooter.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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