Tinkering with the death penalty: A hot-button issue in an election year

A year after Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed a bill to abolish the death penalty, Republican legislators are proposing legislation intended to speed up executions in Connecticut.

One of the bill’s sponsors concedes that passage is unlikely, but the proposal ensures that capital punishment will get a public hearing in the run-up to the 2010 elections for General Assembly.

“This is happening in my opinion mainly for political reasons, not that there is anything wrong with political reasons,” said Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, D-East Haven, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

One of the sponsors, Rep. William A. Hamzy, R-Plymouth, said he wants to force a debate over the legislature’s ability to set limits on death-row appeals.

“I feel I have an obligation and a responsibility,” Hamzy said. “If this is something I believe in, I need to offer my ideas of what form the system should take. Otherwise, why be here?”

The legislature last made major changes to the death-penalty laws in 1995, making capital punishment easier to impose at trial and tightening the windows for appeals.

Gov. John G. Rowland signed the bill into law at a ceremony attended by relatives of murder victims.

“We will finally have a workable death penalty in this state,” said Dale Radcliffe, a Republican state legislator who now is a Superior Court judge.

But with the exception of serial killer Michael Ross, who dropped all appeals and pressed for his own execution, no one has been executed under the “workable” law.

So, with a high-profile death-penalty case coming to trial, Hamzy wants the legislature to resume tinkering with the ability of the condemned to press their appeals.

Lawlor, an opponent of capital punishment, predicted that the effort will be futile, saying that changes themselves would be fodder for appeals.

Fifteen years ago, he expressed the same doubts about the so-called “workable” death penalty: “If we’re going to make the death penalty workable, then let’s make it workable, so we don’t have this debate every year. I’m not convinced the bills today would do that.”

A year earlier, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun famously swore off trying find a balance between due process and certain justice when it came to capital punishment.

“From this day forward, no longer shall I tinker with the machinery of death,” Blackmun wrote.

Hamzy and Rep. David K. Labriola, R-Naugatuck, are pushing their bill, which now exists only as a one-line concept, as two defendants face capital felony charges in the Cheshire home invasion case.

Dr. William A. Petit, whose wife and daughters were killed in the attack, has repeatedly expressed frustration at the slow pace of the case.

Hamzy’s bill would do nothing to speed any capital case to trial.

“There’s no issue between the arrest and sentencing,” Hamzy said of the current law. “The issue has always been post-sentencing.”

In Connecticut, a major obstacle to executions has been an appeal by nine death-row inmates, claiming a racial disparity in the imposition of the death penalty. The appeal has been litigated for a decade.

After exhausting their rights to a direct appeal of a conviction, inmates can pursue repeated “habeas” appeals under the state and federal constitutions, claiming their right to a fair trial was compromised by an number of issues, such as ineffective assistance of counsel.

Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane advised Hamzy and Labriola to limit their focus to ways of eliminating repetitive habeas petitions, except those for good cause.

“If you look around to what other states have done, they could make some big changes,” Kane said.

Hamzy said he was encouraged by Florida law that he says limited habeas appeals: The average time in Florida from conviction to execution is now about 13 years.

Other cases have languished, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. Gary E. Alvord, the inmate with the most continuous time on Florida’s death row, was convicted 36 years ago.

Florida’s most recent execution came a week ago with the death of Martin Grossman. He had been on death row for 24 years.