Connecticut Death|Penalty Struck Down

     (CN) – Finding that an execution “no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose,” the Connecticut Supreme Court abolished capital punishment Thursday as unconstitutional for the 11 men who remain on death row.
     “Upon careful consideration of the defendant’s claims in light of the governing constitutional principles and Connecticut’s unique historical and legal landscape, we are persuaded that, following its prospective abolition, this state’s death penalty no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose,” Justice Richard Palmer wrote for the sharply divided court.
     Chief Justice Chase Rogers, Justice Peter Zarella and Justice Carmen Espinosa each wrote separate dissenting opinions, while Justices Flemming Norcott, Dennis Eveleigh and Andrew McDonald joined Palmer in the majority decision.
     Connecticut’s General Assembly prospectively abolished the death penalty in 2012, barring the execution of those convicted of capital offenses after April 25 of that year. There had been 11 men on death row at that time and one of them, Eduardo Santiago, claimed “imposition of the death penalty would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”
     Santiago’s appeal of his death sentence in the killing of Joseph Niwinski in December 2000 was pending when the Legislature passed the law prospectively repealing the death penalty. Thursday’s ruling reverses Santiago’s death sentence and remands the case for the trial court to impose a life sentence without the possibility of release.
     The Legislature’s debate in 2012 focused on whether it would be constitutional to prospectively repeal the death penalty. Also weighing heavily on their minds was the brutal 2007 murder of a Cheshire family and the fate of the two convicted murderers, Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, who are two of the 11 men on death row.
     Lawmakers who voted against abolishing the death penalty said it created two classes of people and created a constitutional conflict.
     “You have a group of people who are subject to death at the hands of the state and yet you draw a line in the sand at a point in time and say, regardless of what anyone does the official policy thereafter of the state is to ban the death penalty,” then-House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero said during a nine-hour debate.
     In its ruling Thursday, the court found that the 2012 law “creates an impermissible and arbitrary distinction between individuals who committed murders before and after April 25, 2012.”
     Connecticut has not put anyone to death since the execution of Michael Ross in 2005. At the time it was the first execution the state had done in 45 years.
     “In prospectively abolishing the death penalty, the legislature did not simply express the will of the people that it no longer makes sense to maintain the costly and unsatisfying charade of a capital punishment scheme on which no one ever receives the ultimate punishment,” Palmer wrote.
     Rogers in her dissenting opinion meanwhile called every step of the majority’s analysis “fundamentally flawed.”
     She said her colleagues had engaged in an extensive discussion on the ancient history of the death penalty only to identify “absolutely nothing in our state’s distant past … that would remotely support the conclusion that there has ever been a societal consensus in this state that the death penalty is an inappropriate punishment for the most heinous murders.”
     History is “entirely irrelevant to the question before the court,” Rogers said.
     The majority disagreed with Rogers. “Appellate courts tasked with determining the content of law and policy may take notice of constitutional and legislative facts, such as historical sources and scientific and sociological studies,” Palmer wrote.
     Its finding resounded with the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.
     “This decision reflects an evolving norm against the death penalty,” David McGuire, legislative and policy director for the ACLU, said. “There are better ways to punish. Too often, the death penalty is applied arbitrarily and in a racially biased manner. This is a decision that falls on the right side of history.”
     Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said that Connecticut has executed only two inmates, “both of whom volunteered for the execution,” in the last 54 years. A proponent of abolishing the death penalty, Malloy said death-row inmates are able to take advantage of “endless appeals that cost the taxpayers millions of dollars, and give those convicted killers an undeserved platform for public attention.”
     While the decision is a victory for those who support repeal, Malloy said it’s also “a somber day where our focus should not be on the 11 men sitting on death row, but with their victims and those surviving families members.”
     “My thoughts and prayers are with them during what must be a difficult day,” the governor added.
     The Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty said seven states in the last decade have repealed the death penalty and four have enacted moratoria.

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