Democrats in the state Senate voted at 2:05 a.m. Thursday to repeal the death penalty for future crimes, placing Connecticut on a path to become the 17th state to step away from capital punishment.
On a 20-16 vote, the Senate approved and sent to the House a measure that would make life in prison without possibility of parole the state’s harshest punishment, while leaving undisturbed the sentences of 11 men now awaiting execution.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat who says he turned against capital punishment after seeing the limits of the criminal justice system as a prosecutor in New York, is committed to signing the bill. Passage in the House is expected as early as next week.
Twenty of 22 Democrats voted for repeal, including three who were previously opposed: Gayle S. Slossberg of Milford, Carlo Leone of Stamford and Joseph J. Crisco of Woodbridge. A fourth who was publicly undecided in recent weeks, Edith G. Prague of Columbia, also voted with the majority.
All 14 Republicans were opposed, including Sen. Andrew Roraback, R-Goshen, the only GOP senator to vote for repeal in 2009, when a similar bill was vetoed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell. They were joined by two Democrats, Paul Doyle of Wethersfield and Joan Hartley of Waterbury.
The nearly party-line vote is likely to make capital punishment an issue this fall, when all 36 state Senate and 151 state House seats are up for election.
With a supportive governor in office for the first time in at least 16 years, Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, worked quietly in recent weeks to win over three Democrats previously opposed to repeal.
After 10 hours of debate, that effort was rewarded with a relatively strong vote: two more than the bare minimum. Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, a longtime opponent of capital punishment, was prepared to break an 18-18 tie with a vote for repeal.
Some senators cast their votes for repeal based on a long-held belief that capital punishment is wrong.
“I don’t see how we make the point that killing is wrong by killing,” said Sen. Eric D. Coleman, D-Bloomfield, a lawyer who led the debate as co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Others seemed ready to end the state’s frequent debates about a form of punishment imposed only once in recent decades, when serial killer Michael Ross was executed at his request in 2005. The last person involuntarily put to death was Joseph Taborsky in 1960.
The rarity of executions was cited by those who favor and oppose capital punishment. Those in favor said the state imposes the penalty judiciously, while those opposed say it never will be used with sufficient frequency to be an effective deterrent.
“The death penalty is a distraction,” Williams said.
Its repeal is a political compromise. Without sufficient votes to entirely abolish capital punishment, proponents settled on a bill that would only apply to crimes not yet committed. Opponents said the position was morally and intellectually suspect.
“It makes one big, gaping exception for the 11 people currently on death row,” said Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, a Catholic who says he struggled with the moral dimension of the issue. “I believe the bill in front of us tonight fails the moral test.”
The long debate turned on two questions: Is it constitutional to have a prospective death penalty, applicable only to those already on death row? What should be the conditions of confinement for prisoners sentenced for the new crime of murder with special circumstances?
Williams, who toured death row with Coleman and Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said prisoners convicted under the new statute would have limited privileges, living in a special housing unit for at least their first year of confinment.
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 scoffed. They 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, whose district holds a half-dozen prisons, including Northern, the high-security institution that houses death row.
Conditions of confinement were an issue for the three Democratic senators who have been publicly undecided: Prague, Leone and Crisco.
Williams said a Democratic amendment specifying terms of confinement played a role in winning over undecided senators in the Democratic majority.
One of them was Leone, who said life without possibility of parole in a tightly restricted, high-security prison is a reasonable alternative to a death penalty that produces only endless appeals.
“I tried my best to reason, to be methodical, to come to a decision I believe is the right one,” Leone said. Of the new penalty, he said, “It is not one of lesser justice. It is justice. It is restrictive. It is an alternative to a death penalty that does not seem to come to a conclusion.”
Prague, 86, who is the oldest member of the legislature, took the floor at 12:30 a.m.
“It’s no secret I agonized over this decision. I agonized for months,” Prague said. In the end, she said, she was plagued by the fallibility of the criminal justice system, of any human endeavor. She could not abide the thought of an innocent being executed in Connecticut.
Slossberg was next.
“Like Edith — Sen. Prague — it plagues me to think we could put an innocent person to death,” Slossberg said. “Does a moral society execute people?”
Crisco said he was moved to change his vote after talking to relatives of victims disillusioned by the current system, with its unending appeals in capital cases.
“There is a saying: You’re never too old to learn,” Crisco said. “I believe in the last two years I’ve learned quite a bit.”
Looney, the majority leader, said government has no business deciding who lives or dies.
“We should recognize this is an issue we must approach with humility,” Looney said. “Our system is too fallible to give the power of life and death.”
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, who was a law clerk for state Supreme Court Justice Richard Palmer on a death-penalty appeal, disagreed.
“Despite all the flaws that people talk about, we have a pretty amazing system of justice,” McKinney said.
He conceded that innocent men have been discovered on death rows in other states — Williams later would say 138 death-row prisoners have been exonerated — but Connecticut uses the death penalty sparingly, providing top-flight defense lawyers to those charged in capital cases.
“Here in Connecticut,” McKinney said, “There is no evidence that anyone currently on death row is innocent.”
Republicans attempted a series of nine amendments, all but one was rejected by majority Democrats. The exception was language emphasizing that the repeal is meant to cover only future crimes.
It passed on a voice vote.
Roraback, whose past support for repeal is an issue in his congressional campaign, proposed restricting a year-old early release program. He said he could not support repeal until the program was changed.
“In my view, the integrity of the criminal justice system has broken down,” Roraback said.
Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, recited a litany of capital cases, describing their horrors in detail.
Williams responded by referring to 4,600 other murder cases in Connecticut in the 34 years after the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
“Every single one of those 4,600 murder cases was a tragedy that terribly hurt the family and friends of the person whose life was taken. Of those more than 4,600 cases, only nine resulted in a death penalty conviction,” Williams said.
Last year, the Senate abandoned plans for a repeal vote when Prague and Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, refused to back repeal while one of the two defendants in the Cheshire triple murder case still was awaiting trial.
Senate leaders were stunned at being forced to call off a repeal effort that seemed certain to succeed with Malloy in office. Prague and Maynard said they were persuaded by Dr. William Petit, whose wife and two daughters were killed in a horrific home invasion that made national news.
This year, Petit said he had trouble getting access to the senators, though he did not testify at a public hearing on the bill March 14.
Petit, his sister, Johanna Chapman, and their father, William, attended a press conference in McKinney’s office to reiterate his family’s opposition to repeal, even prospectively.
“A prospective appeal is an absolute lie,” Chapman said.
After the press conference, the Petits went to the Senate Democratic caucus room at midday, reporters trailing them, asking to see Democratic senators. Adam Joseph, the communication director for Senate Democrats, told Petit that Williams and Looney would not interrupt the caucus, but they would be available to meet with him before the vote.
Petit left without speaking to the leaders or to Prague, Crisco or Leone. He said he had made a commitment to judge a student invention competion in Cheshire. He did not return before the vote.
But Petit was nonetheless a presence during the debate. Opponents of repeal recounted the details of the crime against his family.
Hartley, one of the two Democrats opposed to repeal, struggled for composure as she described her friendship with Petit’s wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and the friendship of her daughter with the Petits’ children. Death, she said, is a just punishment for their killers.
McKinney said the Democrats 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.
New Mexico passed a similar law in 2009, leaving two men on death row. So far, it has withstood judicial scrutiny.