Conn. House debates death penalty repeal bill

April 11, 2012 - 10:15 PM

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Lawmakers in the state's House of Representatives discussed and proposed amendments to a high-profile death penalty repeal bill for more than eight hours and late into Wednesday night.

If passed, as expected, the bill would move Connecticut one step closer to becoming the 17th state to ban capital punishment. Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said he will sign the bill into law.

After years of failed attempts to repeal the death penalty, which has been on the books in Connecticut for more than 150 years, lawmakers were able to garner support by making the legislation prospective — affecting future crimes and not the 11 men currently on death row.

During the debate, death penalty repeal champion Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, explained why he has sought to have the punishment abolished only for future cases.

"There is nothing wrong with being opposed to the state executing people and saying, 'If I can't stop the state from executing people who are already on death row, at least I can stop the state from executing people who may be on death row in the future,'" he said.

Benjamin Jealous, the president for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a proponent of repeal, stopped by the Hartford Capitol to listen to the House debate.

In March, Jealous visited the Capitol and spoke with the governor against the punishment.

"For Connecticut this means that they break the century's old tradition of sending people to death row and joined the rest of Western civilization, which apart from our country, has long since (abolished) the death penalty," he said of the impending vote.

But the bill's critics, including Dr. William Petit Jr., the sole survivor of a 2007 home invasion that left his wife and two daughters dead, question whether the provision is constitutional and predicted it would be the basis for new appeals by the 11 condemned men.

"How can you say in your heart and with your vote it should no longer be the policy of the state of Connecticut to commit anyone to death and yet at the same time say, 'Except for these 11 guys,'" asked House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, during Wednesday's House debate. "How can you say that? How can you justify that?"

Preserving the death sentence of those still on death row is fairly unusual, although a similar law took effect in New Mexico. The governor there declined to commute the sentences of the state's two death row inmates after the repeal was signed in 2009.

Connecticut has a history of making changes to the death penalty prospective, said Rep. Gerald Fox, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the legislature's Judiciary Committee. He said in 1846 the state created distinctions between first- and second-degree murders. Prior to that change, all murders were punishable by death.

In 1951, a law was passed allowing a jury to determine whether to impose death or life in prison for a first-degree murder. That law, Fox said, was ultimately upheld by the State Supreme Court.

"There is a history behind this. It has happened before in terms of the prospective nature of our death penalty," Fox said. "I recognize the question. I understand these cases are heavily litigated and every avenue is always explored to its fullest, but that is where our law stands now."

Advocates and opponents of the repeal bill predicted the repeal would ultimately become law. Last week, the state Senate passed the legislation on a 20-16 vote.

The bill abolishes the death penalty and replaces it with life imprisonment without the possibility of release. The Senate amended the bill to require that people convicted under the new law would be subject to prison conditions similar to those now experienced by condemned inmates.

Despite passing two Senate amendments, House members voted down multiple amendments, including a measure proposed by the Waterbury delegation that would preserve the death penalty for people convicted of killing police officers.

The amendment comes in response to the 1992 murder of Officer Walter T. Williams III, of the Waterbury Police Department. His killer sits on death row.

Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, and Rep. Jeffrey Berger, D-Waterbury, who was a Waterbury police officer when Williams was shot in the line of duty, said they would break party lines to vote in support of the amendment and against the death penalty repeal bill.

Connecticut has carried out only one execution in 51 years, when serial killer Michael Ross was administered a lethal injection in 2005 after he gave up his appeal rights.

In the past five years, four states have abolished the death penalty — New Mexico, Illinois, New Jersey and New York. Repeal proposals are also pending in several other states including Kansas and Kentucky, while advocates in California have gathered enough signatures for an initiative that could go before the voters in November.