Wariness surrounds death penalty, even after repeal

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is gingerly approaching a date with history: The moment when he signs into law a bill repealing the death penalty in Connecticut for future crimes.

In a statement issued within minutes of final legislative passage Wednesday night and again during a news conference Thursday, the governor tread carefully, acknowledging the depth of emotion surrounding capital punishment.

"It's solemn in the sense this is an issue that divides our citizenry, divided our legislature, although it was a bipartisan vote last night," Malloy said.

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Malloy uncertain about a bill-signing ceremony for repeal. (File photo)

Malloy, a longtime opponent of capital punishment, was uncertain about whether he will hold a public bill-signing ceremony when the legislation reaches his desk in the next week or two.

"I haven't made a decision," he said.

Malloy is hardly ducking his role in repeal.

On MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show, Malloy said Thursday night, "I have to tell you I'm proud to be the governor who will sign this legislation, proud to serve with the men and women of the Senate and the House that have passed this legislation."

Repeal is another measure of how his election in 2010 has changed the political dynamic in Connecticut, where his predecessor, Republican M. Jodi Rell, vetoed a similar bill in 2009.

"It's a historic day. Both the House and Senate have acted. I said I would sign it, and I will," Malloy told reporters Thursday afternoon. "We join 16 other states and the rest of the industrialized world in having taken this step."

But Connecticut will go on the list of states that repealed the death penalty with the same asterisk that appears next to New Mexico: It no longer will have capital punishment on the books for new crimes, but men will remain on death row for old crimes.

Malloy, a former prosecutor who says his inside view of the criminal justice system turned him against capital punishment, said in the early days of his campaign that his opposition to the death penalty was a core belief.

In January 2010, Malloy told the Mirror that he would not hesitate to repeal at a time when emotions were high in Connecticut over a gruesome capital case: the murders of a mother and two daughters in Cheshire.

"We are going to have a very high-profile death-penalty trial in Connecticut, but that doesn't change my core beliefs that it is not a core function of government to put people to death. It should not be a function of government," Malloy said. "And there is absolutely no connection between the death penalty and preventing or discouraging homicides from taking place."

Over the course of the 2010 campaign, Malloy clarified that he would only sign a repeal bill that was prospective, a political compromise legislators had constructed in 2009 to draw broader support.

If such a bill contains an inherent contradiction -- these men should die, but the same crime in the future should carry a sentence of life -- it saves supporters from having their vote translated into saving a specific inmate from the death chamber.

On Thursday, Malloy was uninterested in revisiting the contradiction: "I took a position. I'm honoring that position. We move forward."

In the Senate, three Democrats who previously voted against repeal switched and cast a vote in favor. The vote was 20-16, with two Democrats joining all 14 Republicans in opposition, including one who supported repeal in 2009.

In the House, where repeal passed on an 86-62 vote, at least two changed positions Wednesday night. Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, voted against repeal in 2005, for it in 2009 and against it in 2012.

Rep. T.R. Rowe, R-Trumbull, a conservative Catholic who had publicly agonized over whether to follow his church's teachings against capital punishment, supported repeal Wednesday after voting no in 2009.

He linked his vote to his lifelong opposition to abortion. Rowe was one of eight Republicans to vote for repeal. Hewett was one of 19 Democrats to vote against. Three legislators were absent, two Democrats who previously supported repeal, and one Republican opposed.

The division among the parties ensures that the death penalty will be an issue in some districts this fall, as it was in 2010.

Only in Cheshire, the issue's emotional ground zero, was it deemed a major influence. State Rep. Elizabeth Esty, whose district includes the Cheshire neighborhood where Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her girls were murdered, lost re-election after a campaign that her opponent focused on Esty's vote for repeal in 2009.

Esty at the time acknowledged that the issue even divided her own family: She said her husband, Dan Esty, who now is Malloy's commissioner of energy and environmental protection, favored capital punishment.

Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, who voted for repeal in 2009 and again this year, noted during the debate last week that his own brother and son disagree with him. His son, Jeffrey Meyer, is a former prosecutor and law professor who helped Dr. William Petit, the only survivor of the Cheshire home invasion, informally lobby against repeal.

Even Dr. Petit, the reluctant face of opposition to repeal, acknowledged during a public hearing in 2009 that his wife might have objected to his own passionate view that death was the only just punishment for her death. But he called her position "academic."

"I think it's easy to be academic about these issues," he said. "I wonder if things were switched and it was her sister and her sister's two children in North Carolina that suffered the same fate, I can't tell you for a certainty that she would have stuck to her guns, obviously."

"We may have to catch up with her at some point and get the real answer," he said. "But I think a lot of people have academic opinions, and the question is, when reality slaps them hard in the face, what do they really believe?"

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