By PAT EATON-ROBB, Associated Press
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ An inmate whose death sentence was overturned last year said he is on a hunger strike to protest his continuing imprisonment on death row, where he is subject to the same restrictions as those still facing execution.
Eduardo Santiago told The Associated Press by phone on Wednesday that he stopped eating a week ago and has been ingesting only water. He said he is not seeking special treatment but wants to be moved off death row and allowed the privileges afforded to other non-death row inmates, such as access to the commissary and gymnasium.
“The law says death row inmates are to be separated from other prisoners,” he said. “Every little management thing that they have set up for death row is being heaped upon me and it’s been 15 months that I’m not death row.”
Santiago, 34 of Torrington was sentenced in 2005 to die by lethal injection for the 2000 murder-for-hire killing of 45-year-old Joseph Niwinski in West Hartford.
In June 2012, the state Supreme Court overturned the death sentence and ordered a new penalty phase, saying the trial judge wrongly withheld key evidence from the jury regarding the severe abuse Santiago suffered while growing up.
The new sentencing hearing is on hold until the Supreme Court decides whether Connecticut’s death penalty law is constitutional. Santiago’s attorney has argued that he should not face the possibility of execution in a new hearing, because of the standard established when the legislature last year abolished the death penalty for future crimes. It currently remains in force for those already on death row.
Correction Department spokesman Andrius Banevicius said prison officials have the authority to keep Santiago on death row at Northern Correctional Institution in Somers. He said officials took “everything into account, not the least of which are safety and security concerns.”
He said the department also does not have any evidence that Santiago is on a hunger strike. The inmate said he notified staff on Wednesday.
Connecticut’s death row inmates are held in single cells. They must be escorted by at least one staff person and placed in restraints when moving outside their cell.
They are allowed outside their cells for two hours of recreation a day. One hour typically is spent indoors, in an area that houses a law library and the phone. The other is spent alone in a cage outside in a courtyard.
Prisoners sentenced to life without parole are allowed to be out of their cells six to seven hours a day and spend that time with other inmates.
Santiago’s attorney, Walter Bansley III, said the department has never explained to him why Santiago is still being housed under death-row conditions.
“It’s pretty clear that the Department of Correction has wide discretion as to how they classify inmates and where they house them,” he said. “That is a problem.
Superior Court judges don’t even have the power to tell them what to do.”
Bansley said he was denied permission to see Santiago on Thursday and told he had been moved temporarily to a “behavioral unit.” He said they did not explain why or what that meant.
“They obviously want to deny him access to people and counsel,” he said.
David McGuire, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said it believes it is unlawful for Santiago to be on death row.
It has never been clear whether Santiago killed Niwinski. Two other men, Matthew Tyrell and Mark Pascual, pleaded guilty in the killing and are serving life in prison. Santiago and Tyrell were in Niwinski’s home at the time of the fatal shooting, but both blamed the other.
Prosecutors said Pascual ordered the murder because he was infatuated with Niwinski’s girlfriend, believed Niwinski was abusing her and wanted him dead.
Santiago denies being promised a broken snowmobile in exchange for killing Niwinski.
Santiago said he started the hunger strike because correction officials ignored his arguments.
“I’m not trying to hurt myself,” he said. “I’m doing the only thing I have left.”
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