MANHATTAN (CN) — Nearly half a century after U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart equated U.S. capital punishment with getting "struck by lightning," the appeal of a convicted triple-murderer in Connecticut illustrates the truth of that observation.
Many death-penalty opponents have argued that the rarity of the penalty makes its cruel and unusual, but the Second Circuit appeared preoccupied Monday with a different question: whether a jury condemned Azibo Aquart based on the lie of a government witness.
When he was sentenced to death in December 2012, Aquart became Connecticut's first federal inmate on death row in decades.
There had been 11 men on death row in Connecticut at the state level earlier that year. Each has since had his sentence converted into a life term, however, because Connecticut abolished the death penalty in April 2012.
But Aquart's case is rare, even by the standards of federal capital punishment.
In their brief to the Second Circuit, Aquart's attorneys note that only 2 percent of all 3,911 federal death-eligible cases resolved to date have led to such a sentence.
The statistic is mentioned after a reference to the late Justice Stewart's famous lightning remark in Furman v. Georgia, a 1972 case that began the country's de facto 16-year moratorium on the federal death penalty.
Though President Ronald Reagan reinstated executions in 1988 with the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, Aquart's marks the first appearance of such a sentence in Connecticut since that time.
It follows a typical pattern of the death penalty in the United States. Like most federal death-row prisoners, Aquart — who also goes by the nicknames "Dreddy" and "D" — is black.
Federal prosecutors contend that the Department of Justice's charging decision toward Aquart is not unfair or racist, but a reflection of the "heinous" crimes on Aug. 24, 2005, when Aquart bludgeoned three people in Bridgeport with a baseball bat.
"He brought a murder kit to a murder," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jacabed Rodriguez-Coss told the Second Circuit's three-judge panel Monday.
The government says Aquart had been selling crack cocaine out of his apartment at 215 Charles St., and was angered by competition from another resident, Tina Johnson.
Joined by three accomplices, Aquart broke into Johnson's apartment, restrained its three occupants and beat them to death. They left bodies in the apartment and drilled its door shut.
"Yo, Come Get You Some"
Of the four men charged for the triple-murder, Aquart alone faced a capital trial. A key government witness had been crucial in depicting Aquart as the crew's sadistic leader.
John Taylor told the jury that he saw Aquart "bashing" Johnson "like he was at a meat cleaver — that he was at a meat market, beating them."
In another chilling remark, Taylor claimed Aquart invited him to join in by saying: "Yo, come get you some."
Prosecutors contend that DNA and fingerprints make up a trail of forensic evidence that corroborates Taylor's story as well, but Aquart's attorneys say there is good reason to disbelieve the witness's account.
Though Taylor had been facing three possible life sentences at the time, his cooperation earned him a sentence of just nine years in prison.