Death penalty repeal bill approved by Judiciary Committee

Against the backdrop of the brutal Cheshire home invasion case, the legislature’s Judiciary Committee Tuesday approved a bill that would abolish the death penalty–but only for future crimes.

Opponents argued that the prospective nature of the bill–it would eliminate the death penalty only for murders committed after it takes effect–is a tacit acknowledgment that some crimes are so horrific that only execution is a suitable punishment.

Coleman and Fox

Judiciary co-chairs Sen. Eric Coleman (l) and Rep. Gerald Fox: A fallible judicial system and an unworkable death penalty

Several members cited the 2007 attack on the Petit family of Cheshire, in which a mother and her two daughters were murdered. Dr. William A. Petit was badly beaten, but survived and has become an outspoken proponent of capital punishment.

One of the attackers has been sentenced to death; the other is about to go on trial. Neither would be affected by the repeal bill.

But supporters of repealing the death penalty said the measure would avoid execution of innocent people and save the state the expense of years–sometimes decades–of trials and appeals.

The justice system “is not infallible. It is not perfect,” said Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield and co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He added that the $3.4 million the state spends each year related to enforcing the death penalty is “very costly.”

But Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield, whose district includes Northern Correctional Institution where the 10 current death row inmates are housed, said there will always be crimes “so horrific” where death is the only “appropriate” punishment.

He also said he worries that if death penalty is no longer an option, prosecutors will not be able to leverage plea deals for life imprisonment, and inmates sentenced to life imprisonment will have no repercussions for killing prison guards.

“Why would you ever encourage your client to take that [life in prison] plea?” he said. “There is a role for the death penalty in the state.”

Studies are mixed whether the death penalty deters murderers.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that the current capital punishment law is not working. Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, only one person has been executed in Connecticut: Michael Ross, who voluntarily suspended all appeals in his case.

However, they disagreed on the remedy.

“I think the only real answer here is to fix this” law, said Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby, an opponent of repeal.

Rep. Gerald M. Fox, D-Stamford and co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the constitutional safeguards built into the law are meant to ensure only those guilty are put to death.

But those safeguards, he said, make “a workable death penalty” almost impossible. So, he said, the only alternative is to have the maximum penalty be life in prison.

The proposal — which was voted out of the judiciary committee 26-17 — now heads to the state Senate, where the vote is expected to be close.