Court Stands By Repeal of CT Death Penalty for All

     HARTFORD, Conn. (CN) — Connecticut cannot execute a killer it had on death row when lawmakers abolished the death penalty, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
     Today’s 5-2 decision marks the second time the court has ruled on the matter, with the state having lobbied for a first-of-its kind reversal after the justices struck down the death penalty for all in August 2015.
     Last year’s 4-3 decision came on the heels of the decision by Connecticut’s General Assembly to abolish the death penalty prospectively, barring the execution of those convicted of capital offenses after April 25, 2012.
     There were 11 men on death row at the time, however, and the appeal by inmate Eduardo Santiago is what led the court to say last year that lawmakers had created “an impermissible and arbitrary distinction between individuals who committed murders before and after April 25, 2012.”
     In Connecticut’s bid this year for a different outcome, Chief State’s Attorney used an appeal by Russell Peeler, who was convicted on two counts of capital felony in connection with the shooting deaths of Karen Clarke and her 8-year-old son, Leroy Brown.
     At the January hearing, Peeler’s public defender, Mark Rademacher, argued that Santiago had abolished the death penalty for all remaining death-row inmates, including Peeler. Rademacher said the state must show why Santiago was “clearly wrong.”
     The lead decision today reversing Peeler’s death sentence is just one page, unsigned.
     It says quite simply that Santiago controls.
     Three of judges who joined the majority opinion in Santiago last year expanded upon this in an 18-page concurring opinion, complete with several pages of citations.
     “I write separately because I categorically reject any suggestion that the parties did not have the opportunity to brief these issues in Santiago, or that the court in that case overlooked key authorities, arguments, or historical developments that, if properly considered, would have resulted in a different outcome,” Justice Richard Palmer wrote. “We already have explained at some length why the parties, and particularly the state, had a full and fair opportunity to address the issues on which our decision in Santiago was based.”
     Justices Dennis Eveleigh and Andrew McDonald joined this concurrence.
     Another member of today’s majority, Chief Justice Chase Rogers, had actually been part of the dissent in Santiago.
     Though Rogers had called that decision “fundamentally flawed” last year, she wrote in a concurring opinion today that she feels “bound by the doctrine of stare decisis in this case for one simple reason — my respect for the rule of law.”
     Latin for “to stand for things decided,” the principle of stare decisis says the incorrectness of precedent is not by itself enough to overrule.
     Rogers said another outcome today would send a message that whenever there is a hotly contested issue in the court that results in a closely divided decision, “anyone who disagrees with the decision and has standing to challenge it need only wait until a member of the original majority leaves the court to mount another assault.”
     But Justices Peter Zarella and Carmen Espinosa issued their own strongly worded dissents criticizing Rogers for her reversal on the issue. Both had dissented last year as well.
     “I cannot fathom how Chief Justice Rogers and Justice Robinson believe they respect the rule of law by supporting a decision that is completely devoid of any legal basis or believe it is more important to spare this court of the purported embarrassment than to correct demonstrable constitutional error,” Zarella’s dissent states.
     Though Justice Richard Robinson joined the majority today, he did not sign any of the concurring opinions. Robinson was not on the court last year for Santiago.
     Zarella said the dissent Rogers wrote last year in Santiago “reveals beyond any doubt that she strongly feels that the majority’s decision in Santiago is obviously wrong.”
     Espinosa said that, by framing the argument about the makeup of the court, Rogers had created a “straw man.” She said Rogers suggested that, because the panel in Santiago would have been unwilling to overrule its decision, the current panel is prevented from doing so. Espinosa disagreed.
     Indeed during Rogers’ own tenure, the court has overruled its prior precedent at least 25 times, according to Espinosa’s dissent. In those cases, the panel that overruled precedent differed from the panel that decided the original case.
     Gov. Dannel P. Malloy applauded Peeler’s reprieve.
     “Today’s decision reaffirms what the court has already said: those currently serving on death row will serve the rest of their life in prison with no possibility of ever obtaining freedom,” Malloy said.
     He said the only two inmates to be executed over the last half-century volunteered for that punishment.
     Others who fought years to abolish the death penalty also applauded the decision.
     “We welcome today’s Connecticut Supreme Court ruling, which takes the prudent step of ending the state’s failed death penalty and the possibility of any future executions,” said Sheila Denion, project director for the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty. “Today’s ruling ensures that we can move beyond this flawed policy to the total abolition of capital punishment in our state.”

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