Longtime death penalty foe savors historic House repeal debate

One of the staunchest opponents of capital punishment in modern Connecticut legislative history was on hand Tuesday to enjoy the anticipated historic House vote to send a repeal bill to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Former Rep. William Dyson, a New Haven Democrat who spearheaded several repeal efforts in the 1980s and 1990s, said a combination of several factors finally brought repeal to fruition this spring.

“It’s important that we have a governor willing to sign it,” Dyson said of Malloy. A repeal bill enacted in 2009 was vetoed by then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

The former New Haven lawmaker also said the work of The Connecticut Innocence Project and others who have used DNA evidence to help exonerate Connecticut inmates convicted of major offenses repeatedly showed the vulnerabilities of the judicial system in recent years. “It seemed like it was happening every month or so,” he said.

And ironically, the brutal slayings from the 2007 Cheshire home invasion — a crime that many argue galvanized support for the capital punishment — also played a role in furthering its repeal, Dyson said.

And as the aftermath of that tragedy included a closer look at violent crime in Connecticut, it also led many to look at the disparity with which society responds to criminals and victims in communities of poverty and affluence. “It gave us a demonstration of the stark reality of how we treat some people one way, and others another way,” he said.

Dyson said the political compromise that made passage possible — repealing capital punishment for future felony offenses but retaining the sentence for the 11 inmates currently on death row — was a disappointment. “I have a problem with it,” he said. “We’re making an argument that, on one hand some people need to die, but in the future, people are not going to die. I would have preferred something much cleaner.”

Dyson also acknowledged another longstanding death penalty foe Tuesday, the late Rep. Richard Tulisano of Rocky Hill, who chaired the Judiciary Committee for much of Dyson’s legislative tenure.

“Tulo would have been glowing to hear this debate,” Dyson said, adding he would be calling with Tulisano’s widow, Beverly, after the House adjourned.