Democratic leaders say the Connecticut Senate is poised today to repeal the death penalty for future crimes with at least one vote to spare, but Dr. William Petit and other opponents of repeal made a late and likely fruitless effort to turn votes.
Debate began at 3:38 p.m., with Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, the co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, rising to begin making the case for repeal in what is expected to be a debate of at least six hours.
In a press conference before the debate, Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, outlined an amendment that would set “tough new conditions of confinement” for prisoners sentenced under the new crime of “murder with special circumstances.”
He said the conditions would mirror those on death row, which is occupied by 11 men now condemned to death: Inmates would be confined to cells for 22 hours a day, segregated from the general prison population.
“This is a severe and certain punishment,” Williams said. “This does almost exactly mirror the conditions for those prisoners on death row, still staying within the constitutional requirements that we must follow for imprisonment.”
Republicans countered that the commissioner of correction would have discretion to place inmates in other units after one year.
“Don’t fool yourself into thinking this amendment is a get-tough amendment,” said Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield.
Conditions of confinement were an issue for the three Democratic senators who have been publicly undecided: Edith Prague of Columbia, Carlo Leone of Stamford and Joseph J. Crisco of Woodbridge. All three are now expected to vote for repeal, with the possibility of additional votes, Democrats said.
If all three vote for repeal, the bill would pass on a 19-17 vote. The Senate leadership has indicated it would not call a vote without a minimum of 18 Democratic votes.
On an 18-18 vote, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman is prepared to break the tie by casting a vote for repeal. The bill then would go to the House of Representatives, where passage is expected. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has promised to sign the bill.
“We intend to take a historic step today,” Williams said. “We intend for Connecticut to become the 17th state to repeal the death penalty in the United States.”
Williams, Coleman, Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, and Correction Commissioner Leo Arnone outlined the amendment at the first of dueling news conferences in corner offices at opposite ends of the third floor of the Capitol.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, followed with a conference attended by Petit, the survivor of the 2007 Cheshire home invasion in which his wife and two daughters were murdered. Last year, Petit was able to persuade Prague and another senator to oppose repeal until the two defendants were tried and sentenced in his family’s case.
Petit went to the to the Senate Democratic caucus room at midday. Adam Joseph, the communication director for the Senate Democrats, told him that Williams and Looney would not interrupt the caucus, but they would be available to meet with him before the vote.
Petit left without talking to the leaders or Prague, Crisco or Leone. He said he had made a commitment to judge a student invention competion in Cheshire. He was uncertain if he would return before the vote, which was expected late tonight.
Leone and Crisco, who have voted against previous repeal bills, have said little publicly about how they intended to reach a decision. After the Mirror reported early Tuesday that a repeal vote was likely, they spent much of the day dodging questions from reporters about how they would vote.
McKinney said the Democrats have constructed a repeal bill that appeals to political expediency: Since it applies only to future crimes, the proponents can say they are not voting to spare anyone on death row, including the two men convicted of killing Petit’s family.
“A prospective appeal is an absolute lie,” said Johanna Chapman, Petit’s sister.
New Mexico passed a similar law in 2009, which so far has withstood judicial scrutiny. But McKinney said passage of the prospective repeal law eventually would mean that the 11 men on Connecticut’s death row would see their sentences reduced to life without possibility of release.
Prague said she was leaning toward repeal, but only if she is assured that her vote does not negate the current death sentences, especially for Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, convicted of triple murder in the Cheshire home invasion.
“My fear is some innocent person will be sent to death row,” Prague said. “By the same token, I couldn’t live with myself if repeal got Komisarjevsky and Hayes to win an appeal to have their death penalties reversed.”
New Mexico’s death-penalty repeal also was written not to commute the sentences of those already on death row.
In Connecticut, capital crimes now punishable by a death sentence would carry a sentence of life in prison with no possibility of release. Those crimes would be classified as “murder with special circumstances.”
Connecticut’s legislature also passed a repeal bill in 2009, but it was vetoed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell. Connecticut and New Hampshire are the only New England states with the death penalty.
Prague and Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, who voted for repeal in 2009, blocked a vote last year when one of the Cheshire defendants still was awaiting trial. Maynard is unconditionally committed to vote for repeal.
Sen. Andrew Roraback, R-Goshen, who has previously voted for repeal, has made his vote conditional on the legislature repealing or significantly revising a law that awards inmates “risk reduction credits” that can reduce a sentence for good behavior.
Malloy held a news conference last week with Ben Jealous, president and chief executive officer of the NAACP, which is leading an effort to abolish the death penalty nationally.
But Malloy has not directly lobbied legislators.
“I think everybody in the state of Connecticut knows what my position is,” Malloy said. “To state it quite succinctly, if the legislature was to send me a bill that was prospective in nature, I would sign it.”
Connecticut is one of 34 states with the death penalty. Of the 1,289 executions in the United States since capital punishment was reinstated, only one was in Connecticut: Michael Ross, who was put to death in 2005 at his request. The United States was the only Western democracy to carry out executions in 2011.