With a televised clash over capital punishment likely just a few hours away, gubernatorial contenders Dan Malloy and Tom Foley maneuvered delicately but differently around Tuesday afternoon’s conviction in the Cheshire home invasion slayings.

Foley cited both Malloy’s opposition to capital punishment and referred to the July 2007 murders of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters in reaffirming his support for the death penalty – and implying a Malloy win would spare the Cheshire suspects from execution.

But the Greenwich Republican issued it just after 5:30 p.m. on Monday, about 19 hours before a jury would convict Steven Hayes on 16 counts, including six capital felony charges that could lead to a death sentence.

“I am sure a bill repealing the death penalty has already been drafted and will be in the next governor’s in-box,” Foley wrote. “I will veto it. Dannel Malloy won’t.”

Foley added that “Dannel Malloy has stated unequivocally he would eliminate the death penalty in Connecticut,” and “If he is governor the death penalty will go away in Connecticut and a repeal will likely apply to the murderers of Mrs. Petit and her two daughters. … ” Why are Dan Malloy and our legislature determined to push something through that voters don’t support? This kind of arrogance is one of the reasons voters are fed-up with career politicians.”

Former Democratic State Chairman John F. Droney Jr. called the statement a “craven attempt to capitalize on a terrible tragedy.” And though Droney said Foley’s early release was a transparent attempt to appear pre-emptive, he wasn’t sure whether voters would see through it.

“The people of Connecticut usually see through cheap political ploys,” Droney said, but the death penalty debate “is very emotional. It’s a powerful thing.”

A 2009 Quinnipiac University poll found 61 percent of voters favor the death penalty compared with 34 percent who would replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Given clear public sentiment, Republican State Chairman Christopher Healy said, voters don’t want the candidates to back away from this issue. “They are clearly supportive of the death penalty, “he said. “And I think a majority of the public sees that the Cheshire crime completely crystallizes the issue.”

Healy said Malloy’s comments, issued about a half hour after Tuesday’s verdict, offered “phony sentiment” and employed “lawyerly” language to hide the Stamford Democrat’s opposition to the death penalty.

“The justice system is working as it should,” Malloy wrote. “My heart goes out to Dr. Petit, his family, and their friends.  I pray for them that this entire process ends as soon as possible, and that justice is done.”

Droney said that “Dan has what used to be known as courage,” adding that the Democratic nominee never has hidden his stand on capital punishment.

The two major party gubernatorial candidates are scheduled to debate at 7 p.m. at The Bushnell in Hartford. The event is being broadcast live on WTIC-Fox 61.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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