On an 86-62 vote, the House of Representatives gave final legislative approval Wednesday night to a bill repealing the death penalty for future crimes, leaving Connecticut one step away from becoming the 17th state to abolish capital punishment.
The bill, which Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has pledged to sign, advanced after a 9 1/2-hour debate focused largely on a provision that still mandates capital punishment for Connecticut’s 11 death row inmates.
The bill passed with votes from 78 of 99 Democrats and eight of 52 Republicans. Senate Democrats passed the bill 20-16 last week, with two Democrats joining all 14 Republicans in opposition.
In place of the existing crime of capital felony, the bill creates a new crime of murder with special circumstances, punishable by life in prison without chance of release.
“Despite having the death penalty in oiur society here in Connecticut for several hundred years … it certainly hasn’t eradicated evil from our society,” said House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden. “If we as human beings created laws that reciprocate the evil that’s perpetrated on society, are they really protecting us? … Our laws more project our better selves.”
Though Connecticut imposes the death sentence on only the most horrific of crimes, Rep. Terry Backer, D-Stratford, noted that there have been nearly 290 post-conviction exonerations of death row inmates in the United States since the late 1970s.
“I am torn in two,” he said, “but it is my innate feeling that government makes mistakes.”
“We must always be aware that government makes mistakes and the death penalty is irreversible,” said Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford. Recounting the tale of Kenneth Ireland Jr., Mushinksy noted how the resident of her town served 21 years in prison until DNA evidence cleared him in 2009 of a wrongful murder conviction.
Individuals sentenced under the new law would be provided with no more than two hours of activity per day and permitted no contact during social visits, Fox said. They also would be housed separately from others, escorted on all movements, transferred to a new cell every 90 days and subjected to at least two searches per week.
Minority Republicans focused much of their opposition to a controversial legal assertion first offered by Malloy during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign: that Connecticut could repeal capital punishment for future crimes without lifting that penalty for those already on death row.
Only New Mexico has a similar law.
Amid that 2010 campaign, Steven Hayes, one of the two suspects in the 2007 Cheshire murder of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters, would be convicted of the crime. His accomplice, Joshua Komisarjevsky, was convicted last October. Both have been sentenced to death.
“This bill hangs together on a peculiar bargain made between morality and politics,” said Rep. John Hetherington, R-New Canaan.
House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, who supports Connecticut’s death penalty, recalled several past debates when repeal advocates cited moral objections, fears of wrongful convictions, or even the lengthy, numerous appeals that make actual imposition of the death penalty very rare.
“They were principled debate that were felt with all our heart and soul,” he said. “And I’m sorry to say that today is different.”
Cafero said it is “illogical” and “impossible” to legislate an end to capital punishment — except for 11 people. “How can you say that? How can you justify that?”
“You either support the death penalty and taking somebody’s life or you don’t,” said Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Woodbridge. “You can’t support it for these guys, but not for these guys.”
Fox said that should a court rule that Connecticut cannot impose the death penalty on those convicted prior to this legislation’s enactment, then those on death row would have their sentences converted to life imprisonment under high security without the chance of parole.
Before Wednesday’s House debate, Cafero handed out portions of the transcript from the Oct. 5, 2010, forum between Malloy and GOP gubernatorial nominee Tom Foley, a televised event in Hartford that happened the same day that Hayes was convicted.
Foley pledged to veto any repeal, arguing that otherwise Hayes and Komisarjevsky would escape execution. But Malloy — already on record as favoring repeal — said he’d ensure that such a change wouldn’t affect those already sentenced to death.
“What I’ve said is any legislation that I would sign would be prospective, it would be out into the future,” Malloy said. “I’ve guaranteed that it would be drafted in such a way as to guarantee that these two individuals — if we ever had a workable death penalty — would be put to death, if that’s the sentence of the jury.”
Cafero also charged the Democratic governor’s administration with “misleading” legislators into believing that a similar forward-looking death penalty repeal statute, adopted in 2009 in New Mexico, had survived a constitutional challenge there. Fox acknowledged during the debate that a challenge on grounds that the prospective system is unconstitutional still is pending in that state.
Malloy’s senior adviser, Roy Occhiogrosso, said Wednesday that the administration hasn’t misrepresented the New Mexico death penalty discussion. “That’s not true,” he said. “I know Representative Cafero enjoys playing politics. I would hope he would not play politics with this issue.”
“I’m pleased the House passed the bill, and when it gets to my desk I will sign it,” Malloy wrote in a statement released immediately after the vote. “I want to be careful in the tone of my remarks, out of respect for the gravity of the issue at hand and out of respect for people on both sides of the issue.
“When I sign this bill, Connecticut will join 16 other states and almost every other industrialized nation in moving toward what I believe is better public policy. For decades, we have not had a workable death penalty. Only one person’s been executed in Connecticut in the last 52 years, and he volunteered for it. Going forward, we will have a system that allows us to put these people away for life, in living conditions none of us would want to experience. Let’s throw away the key and have them spend the rest of their natural lives in jail.”
Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, one of the legislature’s most vocal opponents of capital punishment since he joined the House in 2009, said it became clear that a repeal that was not prospective would not pass. He added that he believes it is better to stop some executions in the future than none at all.
“It’s not a scheme. It’s the way things operate around here,” he said. “Being a purist, sometimes, is not a good thing. … This is not about the polls. This is who we are and what we believe.”
“If I had my way, we would have no death penalty, for everyone, including the 11 on death row,” he said.
Republicans offered several amendments to the bill Wednesday, all rejected in votes largely along party lines.
Hetherington proposed language that would have reinstated capital punishment in all instances should the courts rule the death penalty couldn’t be imposed exclusively on past convictions. “If the bargain crumbles in part, it must crumble in whole,” he said.
Other failed GOP amendments would have retained the death penalty for those who murder police officers or prison guards, those who both murder and commit sexual assault, or for those who kill two or more people through an act of terrorism.
Though most Democrats backed repeal, a handful argued for retaining capital punishment.
“I wish that our Heavenly Father would bless me … (but) I cannot get over the loss of my brother,” said Rep. Larry Butler, D-Waterbury, who recounted the loss of his younger brother to murder in 1985.
Rep. Mary D. Fritz of Wallingford said she fears those sentenced to life imprisonment could have their sentences scaled back by future legislatures. “Who’s to say 10 years down the road, 15 years down the road, another group of legislators won’t come in and say, ‘What is wrong with those people in 2012?'” she said. “We are lawmakers. We make laws, we change laws.”
A Democrat who voted for repeal in 2009, but opposed it Wednesday, Rep. Ernest Hewett of New London, said he was swayed by considering the murder of 8-year-old Leroy “B.J.” Brown.
Russell Peeler Jr. was sentenced to death in 2007 after being convicted of ordering his brother to kill the boy and his mother, Karen Clarke. The 8-year-old was to be the key witness against Peeler in a case involving a drug-related shooting.
“Here was a little 8-year-old kid who had no voice of his own,” Hewett said, adding that he fears the prospective approach taken in the bill ultimately will lift the death sentence for all on death row.
“The appeals will be filed,” Hewett said. “They will win and no one on death row will get the death penalty.”
“It’s important that we not abandon this tool that we have,” said Rep. Jeff Berger, a retired Waterbury police officer, who argued that capital punishment is an effective crime deterrent.
But Rep. Marie Kirkley-Bey, D-Hartford, said meeting with mothers of crime victims in Hartford has shown her they seek justice, not necessarily death for criminals. “They want closure,” she said. “They want to be able to go to sleep at night and know these people are off the street.”
Kirkley-Bey also rejected the argument that capital punishment is a deterrent. “There’s not a person in Connecticut who committed a crime, a murder, who said, ‘I’m not going to do that because they have the death penalty,'” she said. “I don’t believe that and, if you do, you’re crazy.”
Once Malloy signs the repeal legislation, Connecticut would join 16 other states that ban capital punishment: Alaska, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin.