A bill repealing the death penalty cleared the Judiciary Committee on a 24-19 vote Wednesday night and was headed to the Senate, where a proponent, Sen. Eric D. Coleman, D-Bloomfield, said he was "very optimistic" about winning passage.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is committed to signing a repeal bill similar to one vetoed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell in 2009 after it squeaked through the Senate on a 19-17 vote. With eight new senators, a vote in the Senate again is projected to be close.
The governor discounted the impact of a new Quinnipiac University poll that found Connecticut voters objecting to repeal by a 2-1 ratio.
"I think everyone should be guided by their own conscience in matters such as this," Malloy said. "If we had polled civil rights in 1962, we still would be under Jim Crow laws."
To pass the bill, proponents appear to need the votes of two of three publicly uncommitted Democratic senators: Edith Prague of Columbia, Carlo Leone of Stamford and Joseph Crisco of Woodbridge.
"I'm very optimistic and very hopeful," said Coleman, the co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
All three recently toured death row. Prague, who voted for repeal in 2009, was one of two senators who blocked a repeal vote last year in deference to pleas by Dr. William Petit, whose wife and two children were murdered in a home invasion.
"I respect that for them the decision they have to make is matter of great conscience," Coleman said. "I would like to give them as much time as they want or need in order to arrive at a decision."
But Coleman said the calendar is intruding, meaning the trio are being pressed for an answer. The session ends May 9.
Should he only manage an 18-18 tie in the Senate, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman is prepared to cast the deciding vote in favor of repeal as the presiding officer of the Senate.
The bill endorsed Wednesday would make life in prison without possibility of release the punishment for capital felonies. It would apply to crimes committed after passage.
The 11 men on death row, including two convicted of murdering Petit's family, still would face the death penalty. But opponents of repeal predicted that those sentences would be voided if the state abolishes the death penalty.
Some opponents of repeal seemed resigned to passage.
Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, the ranking Republican senator on Judiciary, said he already was focused on negotiating language with Coleman that would continue to isolate prisoners convicted of capital felonies, even if death row disappeared.
Kissel still told his colleagues they were making a mistake. He noted the Quinnipiac University poll released earlier Wednesday found that Connecticut voters called repeal a "bad idea."
"For those of my colleagues who feel they know better, I'm saying the people in Connecticut are pretty darn smart," Kissel said.
Kissel read a roll of the men on death row and their crimes, saying no one questions their guilt or the depravity of their crimes.
Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, a leading proponent of repeal in the House, said other polls have found the state more evenly divided when pollsters inform voters the options are the death penalty or life without parole.
But Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, said, "This vote should never be a matter of a poll."
Sen. Andrew Roraback, R-Goshen, the only Republican to vote for repeal in the Senate in 2009, voted against abolition Wednesday.
Roraback, a candidate for Congress whose opposition to the death penalty has been the subject of an attack ad, is refusing to vote for repeal unless Democrats agree to change a law passed last year that allows early release for some inmates.
Reps. T.R. Rowe of Trumbull and Richard A. Smith of New Fairfield were the only Republicans on the committee to vote for repeal. Rowe, a prominent opponent of abortion, said he cast his vote to "promote a culture of life."