In rejecting the death penalty, one senator is a catalyst
It is nearing 2:30 a.m., and the corridors of the State Capitol are almost empty. Two women, both longtime lobbyists in the cause of abolishing capital punishment, wait for Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn.
When Williams finally emerges from the Senate with an aide, the taller of the women, Kimberly Harrison, steps forward to kiss him on the cheek. The other, Betty Gallo, touches his arm. Williams, an introvert in a profession of extroverts, smiles self-consciously.
After starting the legislative session on Feb. 8 with only 16 Democratic votes for repeal, the Senate had just voted 20-16 to abolish the death penalty for future crimes.
The surprisingly strong vote in the early hours of Holy Thursday emerged from six weeks of discreet conversations conducted by Williams, an unexpected phone call from a distant colleague, a pivotal tour of death row and, ultimately, a quiet cup of tea.
Four swing senators – one on no one’s list of possible yes votes — reached their own decision, completing what Williams called their own personal journey. And others had laid the groundwork, lobbyists and other legislators who have worked the issue for years.
But Williams was the catalyst.
On Feb. 23, he and Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, met in Williams’ spacious corner office on the third floor of the Legislative Office Building with three potential swing votes: Democrats Edith G. Prague of Columbia, Carlo Leone of Stamford and Joseph J. Crisco of Woodbridge.
“We talked about the various arguments.” Williams said. “Is it a deterrent? Is it discriminatory? Is it a net plus or minus in terms of resources committed in our criminal justice system?”
It was the start of a series of meetings initiated by Williams, as a group and individually. The point of the exercise was to decide in the next month if there was any purpose in Sen. Eric D. Coleman, D-Bloomfield, the co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, reporting a repeal bill out of his committee.
“I wasn’t going to tell Eric to go and get that out if in my gut I knew we would not be able to have the votes,” Williams said.
A clock was ticking.
Prague, 86, the oldest member of the Senate, had the highest profile among the trio invited to Williams’ office. Her opposition to repeal shifted in 2009, when she joined a 19-17 majority in the Senate in favor of abolition, a measure that was vetoed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a moderate Republican.
The election of 2010 brought good and bad for the repeal movement. Dannel P. Malloy and Nancy Wyman, Democrats opposed to capital punishment, were elected as governor and lieutenant governor.
But the new membership of the Senate, at best, seemed to yield an 18-18 deadlock over repeal. As the presiding officer of the Senate, Wyman would break the tie.
Passage was within reach, if just barely.
Then Prague and Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, abandoned the cause, at least temporarily. They were unwilling or unable to go against the wishes of Dr. William A. Petit, who once was known at the State Capitol as an affable advocate on medical issues.
After he was beaten and his wife and two daughters murdered at their Cheshire home on a summer night in 2007, Petit took on a status somewhat akin to a secular saint when it came to questions of justice for the dead.
Petit asked them not to vote for repeal, at least not while the case still was pending against one of the two men who eventually would be convicted and sentenced to death for the attack on his family.
“For Dr. Petit, for me to do one more thing to cause him some kind of angst, I can’t do it,” Prague said in May 2011.
Conventional wisdom holds that controversial social issues like the death penalty are best tackled in odd years, when the session is longer and legislators aren’t staring at re-election. The session in even years is a three-month sprint, whose end in early May marks the beginning of campaign season.
Williams said if there was an opportunity for repeal, it should be pursued, even in a short session.
“I thought shortly after the session began in February, it would make sense to start reaching out to the senators to see what they thought about the death penalty,” said Williams, who ascended to the Senate’s top leadership post July 1, 2004.
It was the day John G. Rowland resigned as governor, setting off a chain of successions that made Kevin Sullivan, who was Williams’ strong-willed predecessor, the lieutenant governor. Legislative leaders often thrive with a mix of menace and back-slapping familiarity.
Williams was neither a back-slapper, nor a hammer. As a lawyer and former first selectman from the state’s Quiet Corner, Williams led the Senate with a methodical diligence on issues, not charisma.
But the death penalty, perhaps, was the ideal issue for a leader who likes to be a facilitator.
Maynard was back in the fold at the start of the 2012 session.
“Sen. Prague was not sure, so from a vote count point of view, with Sen. Maynard on board, there would be 16 Democrats and one potential Republican. Even with Sen. Roraback, we’d be at 17, one short of a tie,” Williams said.
Andrew Roraback of Goshen was the only Republican senator to vote for repeal in 2009. A week before the Judiciary vote this year, Roraback would announce his opposition to repeal, unless Democrats ended a new early-release program for inmates.
At the first meeting Williams and Looney had with the trio of swing votes, the conversation eventually moved to the alternative to execution: a sentence of life without possibility of release. For the first time, they talked about the conditions of confinement.
“And as we had that discussion, all of us came to the realization that we had not seen death row,” Williams said.
Calls were made. On March 5, all five senators would tour death row at Northern Correctional Institution in Somers, a grim, high-security prison designed to segregate inmates who pose chronic disciplinary or security risks.
Then came “a call out of the blue” from Sen. Gayle S. Slossberg, D-Milford, whose relationship with leadership was strained, largely over her opposition to Democratic budget and tax packages, including Malloy’s first budget in 2011.
Slossberg had heard about the tour and wanted to join them. Without being lobbied by him or the advocates, Slossberg was seriously considering supporting repeal.
“She had obviously been thinking about this for a long time, and this obviously was a very important and personal decision that she had been living with for a period of time,” Williams said. He was not the only one stunned by the overture.
Repeal advocates said Slossberg was on “no one’s radar.”
Slossberg joined them on the tour of death row.
The six senators were met at Northern by Leo Arnone, the commissioner of Correction, and Michael P. Lawlor, a former legislator now serving as Malloy’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy.
The entrance to Northern is a long, windowless corridor that conveys passage from one world to another. Prisoners make the walk in shackles.
“It’s like coming into a submarine. It has its desired effect, whether on prisoners or on visitors,” Williams said. “By the time we got to death row, people weren’t speaking. They were just walking by.”
Arnone told them that death-row prisoners are locked up 22 hours a day. When they move, they are under guard. Exercise is a solitary activity in a small space open to the sky, giving the sense of standing at the bottom of an elevator shaft.
“The totality of the living conditions there, the grimness of the living conditions there, the totality of the grimness of the living conditions, had a profound effect,” Williams said.
But the tour was not finished. The six senators next were taken to MacDougall-Walker just over the town line in Suffield. With 2,000 inmates, it is the largest prison in New England.
Its typical inmate is serving a long sentence, some doing life.
The senators were immediately struck by the contrast with Northern. Entrance was through what seemed to be a brightly lit, four-story atrium.
Williams says they were told that prisoners are in their cells between 18 and 20 hours a day, but they arrived at mid-afternoon, when many were out of their cells, some in prison jobs.
MacDougall is high-security, but it had a different feel, something approaching normalcy.
“When I set up this tour, my thought was this will be the defining moment when we get to the point where senators are ready to vote for repeal,” Williams said. “In point of fact, it had the opposite effect.”
In individual meetings with the four senators back at the Capitol, Williams and Looney concluded that repeal was possible only if those sentenced to the new crime of murder with special circumstances faced conditions closer to death row than MacDougall.
They devised an amendment to define the conditions of punishment for the new crime: confinement in a segregated housing unit, with privileges within that unit coming at the discretion of the Correction commissioner after a one-year assessment.
By Friday, March 16, a week before the informal deadline set for the Judiciary Committee, Williams sensed that Leone, Crisco and Slossberg were close to being able to commit. He now wanted all four.
For the good of the institution, he said, he preferred not to see an issue as significant as repealing the death penalty pass on a tie vote broken by Wyman. A vote of 19-17 was preferable, 20-16 even better.
Politics had not been part of their conversations, he said, but there was a strategic and political advantage to passage with 20 votes: No one senator would be tagged as the deciding vote.
On Saturday the 17th, Williams called Prague and asked if he could visit. Soon, he was sitting in the kitchen of Prague’s home, having a cup of tea.
“And we talked, and we talked, and we talked,” Williams said.
Even though the bill was prospective. Prague was wary of casting a vote that could lead to the killers of Petit’s family getting out from beneath the shadow of a death sentence. But she had met with James Tillman, a man who served 18 years in prison before DNA exonerated him of rape, and she was haunted by the fallibility of courts.
“At the end of it, I wasn’t sure that she was ready to make the decision, but before I left she said, ‘I will support repeal.’ “
Williams saw her commitment as the last piece. He would have a 20-16 majority.
Williams paused for 10 seconds as he told the story of his cup of tea with Prague. One of the criticisms of his leadership style is it is too cerebral, too emotionally distant. He looked down and took a long breath, composing himself. Then he looked up and finished the sentence.
“… and that was a remarkable moment.”
He smiled broadly.
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