At Petit’s request, two senators stop repeal of death penalty

Two senators opposed to capital punishment said Wednesday they are refusing to vote to repeal the death penalty this year at the request of Dr. William A. Petit, sole survivor of a home invasion that left his wife and two daughters dead. Their switch ends the repeal effort for 2011.

Sen. Edith G. Prague, D-Columbia, told Senate leaders she would not vote for repeal until next session, after the trial of the last of two defendants in the Cheshire home invasion case, in which Petit’s wife was strangled and his daughters bound and left to die in their burning home.

Petit Meyer Chapman

Dr. William Petit, flanked by his lawyer and sister at a legislative hearing this year.

Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, who voted for repeal two years ago, said he also has reconsidered as a result of conversations with Petit. Prague also voted for repeal in 2009.

“I actually believe in repealing the death penalty,” said Prague, a senator for 16 years. “For Dr. Petit, for me to do one more thing to cause him some kind of angst, I can’t do it.”

Prague and Maynard said Petit, a sister, Johanna Chapman, and a lawyer, Jeffrey Meyer, who is the son of Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, told them in separate meetings that repeal could complicate the capital trial of Joshua Komisarjevsky, one of two men charged in the Cheshire case. Another defendant, Steven Hayes, was convicted and sentenced to death.

The repeal legislation was written as a prospective law, to affect only crimes committed after the effective date. But opponents have said it could be grounds for appeal by Komisarjevsky, if sentenced to death, or others to fight a death sentence, and Petit made that case to Prague in a legislative conference room last week.

Prague’s voice broke Wednesday as she recounted her visit from Petit.

“I can still see Dr. Petit’s face in front of me. Oh, my god in heaven. I’m doing it because that’s what they came in for,” Prague said. “They brought their lawyer and said, ‘If you vote for the repeal, it would make it more difficult.”

Kimberly Harrison, a lobbyist for the repeal campaign, said she understands that Petit has been a powerful and sympathetic figure at the Capitol, though a similar bill passed in 2009, while the crime still was fresh in the minds of legislators. Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed the measure.

Petit has testified at public hearings on on crime bills, as has his sister.

“He has every right to influence legislators,” Harrison said.

With Maynard and Prague on board, the repeal legislation would have passed on an 18 to 18 vote, with Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman breaking the tie. The House has ample votes for passage, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is willing to sign the bill into law.

The Senate Democratic majority held a caucus on the death penalty Wednesday, concluding passage was impossible this year. The bill would have made life in prison without possibility of parole the maximum criminal penalty in Connecticut.

The Connecticut Network Against the Death Penalty acknowledged that the repeal effort had failed for 2011.

“This merely puts off for another year the inevitable end of the death penalty in our state, another year of failing victims’ family members and another year of wasting limited state resources,” said Ben Jones, the group’s executive director.

Prague, one of many senators visited by Petit in recent days, told her colleagues she would not change her mind. If the bill was to pass this session, proponents would have to find another 18th vote. With Maynard’s defection, they needed a 17th and an 18th vote.

“I’ve been lobbied by everybody to change my mind. I just can’t do it,” she said.

Maynard said a vote this session would cause the Petits anguish. “It just seems ill-timed to me,” he said.

Next year, Prague said, she would vote for repeal after the last Cheshire trial is over, but not this year, not with Petit asking her to wait.

“You know something, I just felt I just wanted to do a little something to help him,” she said. “I can’t vote for it this session. I can’t do it. I can’t do it.”