Theresa Gerratana sat unnoticed Monday night at the end of a bank of desks in a hearing room, a freshman senator overlooked by witnesses for or against the death penalty. Whether Connecticut keeps capital punishment is largely up to her.
Elected three weeks ago in a special election, Gerratana would be the 18th senator to favor repeal, just enough to force a tie in the Senate that the presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, pledges to break in favor of passage.
As a House member in 1995, she voted for an amendment to repeal the death penalty. Now, she says she is unsure, questioning if life in prison is adequate punishment for the most egregious crimes.
A bank of TV news cameras behind her shot over her head, focusing on witnesses like Professor Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project and Dr. William A. Petit, the sole survivor of a home invasion in Cheshire.
Gerratana read through a stack of written testimony, a mix of scholarly treatises and from-the-heart pleas on the meaning of justice and human failings, as viewed through many prisms, including the Old Testament and a journal of forensic science.
Marilyn Datz of Houston, the mother of a murdered daughter, wrote to the Judiciary Committee, urging Gerratana and her colleagues to apply an ancient standard, that of an eye for an eye. “I personally implore you to keep the death penalty,” Datz wrote. “No parent should ever have to bury their child.”
Other relatives of murder victims testified of coming face to face with evil, such as the hired killer who shot three men to death in a Windsor Locks garage for $2,000. But other witnesses said things sometimes were not as they appeared.
“I’m one of those monsters,” said Ray Krone, sliding behind the microphone long after dark. He was tried and convicted for rape and murder in Arizona, then exonerated when DNA testing eventually led authorities to a convicted sex offender.
Scheck warned the legislators that mistakes can happen anywhere in capital cases, even in Connecticut, which has a special capital-case unit in the public defender’s office.
“It’s just hubris to think it can’t happen here. It can,” Scheck said.
Gerratana, a Democrat from New Britain, said she thought the fallibility of the criminal justice system was perhaps the strongest argument for repeal that she heard Monday, but she would continue to consider the arguments on each side.
She said she felt no pressure at holding a crucial vote.
“I don’t ever think of that. I always think my vote is important. I always act like it might come down to my vote,” Gerratana said. “This is no different from any other vote.”
The public hearing marked the resumption of the General Assembly’s periodic conversation over whether to abolish the death penalty or make it easier to impose by limiting appeals by the condemned.
At a session that began in late morning and marched into evening, the Judiciary Committee heard testimony for the second time in three years on a contradictory menu of bills meant to strengthen or end capital punishment. One proposal would limit habeas-corpus appeals.
“I think you have problems tinkering with the machinery of death,” said Scheck, a law professor best-known as a co-director of the Innocence Project, which has exonerated 250 wrongfully convicted men. “It’s not so easy.”
Seldom out of the legislators’ sight during the day was Petit, whose wife and two daughters were killed in a home invasion, a crime that hangs over any death penalty debate in Connecticut.
With a sister, his parents and a legal adviser, he sat at in the center of the second row in the hearing room. No one sat in front of them.
One of the two abolition bills before the committee was written with the Cheshire case in mind: It would end capital punishment, but only prospectively, an effort to push the Cheshire triple homicide outside the debate.
A similar bill passed in 2009, only to be vetoed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell. Her successor, Dannel P. Malloy, is an opponent of capital punishment, but the margins for passage are tighter this year, especially in the Senate.
Opponents of the bill repeatedly tried to elicit testimony, often successfully, from witnesses that a bill repealing capital punishment prospectively likely would save everyone on death row.
Petit’s sister, Johanna Chapman, told the committee that she questioned Malloy’s claim during the campaign that the abolition bill would not affect the Cheshire defendants, one of whom was sentenced last year to death. Another is awaiting trial.
“Actually, I find it to be disengenuous,” she said. “You are fooling yourselves if you think that once you abolish the death penalty any executions will be carried out.”
Her brother supports capital punishment, but he did not address the repeal effort. Instead, he testified in support of a separate bill guaranteeing victims’ families the right to address the court before sentencing in a capital case.
He was denied the opportunity at the sentencing of Steven Hayes, who was convicted in the deaths of Petit’s wife, Jennifer, and their two daughters, Hayley and Michaela.
“I thought Jennifer, Hayley and Michaela – who will never again speak for themselves – should be humanized as much as the men who murdered them,” Petit said.
Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, one of the leading proponents of repeal, told Petit he agreed with him.
Lining up against the death penalty were clergy, relatives of some murder victims and T.R. Paulding Jr., the lawyer who represented Michael Ross, the serial killer who insisted he be put to death.
Paulding said that he watched the families of Ross’s victims, attend endless court hearings from 1987 until his execution in 2005.
Without the death penalty, Ross would have been sentenced to life without possibility of parole. Instead, he was in the courts, and in the news, for nearly two decades.
“That could have ended 18 years before,” Paulding said.