A senator struggles for an answer on capital punishment

Last year, a visit with Dr. William Petit persuaded Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, to block the repeal  of the death penalty.This year, Prague had another visitor: James Tillman.

Tillman, of East Hartford, spent more than 16 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit before he was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2006. He sat down with Prague two weeks ago — and got her thinking about the possibility that an innocent man could mistakenly be put to death by the state.

“It’s a consideration,” Prague said of how her talk with Tillman might influence her vote on the issue this year. “When I looked at him, I thought, ‘Thank you, God, that he did not face the death penalty.'” (Tillman had been facing a 45-year sentence on charges of kidnapping and rape.)

Prague is one of at least three Democratic senators — Joseph Crisco of Woodbridge and Carlo Leone of Stamford — who are publicly undecided about whether to vote to repeal the death penalty. It is likely that two of the three will have to come down on the side of repeal if the bill is to pass.

On Wednesday, Prague was one of more than 150 spectators at an all-day public hearing on a bill that would repeal capital punishment in the state.

The law would only apply to future cases, meaning it would not affect the 11 people currently on death row in Connecticut. But that hasn’t been a consolation for Petit, whose wife and children were murdered in Cheshire in 2007. Since then Petit has become an icon for death penalty advocates, influencing the votes of key state legislators in previous efforts for abolition. Connecticut residents have also swung more in favor of the death penalty since the Cheshire murders, according to statewide polls.

Prague has been pulled from both ends of the issue by players like Petit and Tillman.

If you’d asked for her position on the death penalty over the past five years, you may well have gotten a different opinion each year. When her neighbor’s granddaughter was murdered she was all for it — and the girl’s killer, Michael Ross, was the last person to be executed in Connecticut in 2005. But in 2009, Prague voted for repeal.

Her explanation? “Well, then James Tillman came along.” At that point she started to wonder if it was possible for Connecticut to kill an innocent man. (She didn’t meet Tillman personally until two weeks ago.)

Two years later she very nearly cast the deciding vote in the Senate before refusing to vote at the last minute. Her explanation that time: A personal plea from Petit and his lawyer. The Cheshire murders’ lone survivor told her that repealing the death penalty would make it more difficult for his family’s murderers to get the justice he thought they deserved.

Petit did not attend the hearings in front of the Judiciary Committee Wednesday, but he released a statement reiterating what he’d told Prague last year: “There is no such thing as a prospective repeal. Passage of this bill essentially voids the death sentences of those currently on death row.”

The skepticism over whether the repeal would really be “prospective” was a major focus of the Judiciary Committee members’ questions Wednesday, with many wondering if the 11 people on death row in Connecticut might get a second chance if repeal passes.

If that’s the case, said Prague, she would have a tough time voting for it.

“If I thought for a minute that those two horrible monsters would be able to escape the death penalty by voting for repeal at this point, that would be a factor in my decision,” Prague said, referring to Joshua Komisarjevsky and Stephen Hayes, who were sentenced to death for the Cheshire murders.

On the other hand, her talk with Tillman made her worry about the possibility of the state administering capital punishment by mistake. She said she was planning to have “a private conversation” about that with Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane, a strong proponent of the death penalty, who was grilled by Judiciary Committee members for more than two hours Wednesday.

A version of this story aired on WNPR/Connecticut Public Radio at http://www.yourpublicmedia.org/content/connecticut-mirror/another-effort-repeal-death-penalty-connecticut.