House Votes To Repeal Death Penalty

Murder victim family members, members of Equal Justice USA, CNADP and other death penalty opponents watch as the votes are tallied Wednesday night. (John Woike)

The Connecticut House of Representatives late Wednesday gave final legislative approval to a measure repealing the state's seldom-used death penalty after more than 9 1/2 hours of often gut-wrenching debate.

Senate Bill 280 cleared the House 86-62, a vote that broke largely along party lines. The bill now goes to Gov.Dannel P. Malloy, who has pledged to sign it, ending a form of punishment in the state that dates back to Colonial times when those convicted of being witches were sent to the gallows.

"This vote tonight ... allows Connecticut to break with a centuries-old tradition of executing people and rejoin the rest of the Western world, which has long since cut bait with the death penalty,'' said Benjamin Todd Jealous, the national president of the NAACP, who watched the back-and-forth from the House gallery. "It also moves our nation forward."

Connecticut will join the 16 other states, and the District of Columbia, that have abolished capital punishment. The bill, approved by the Senate one week ago, replaces the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of release, although it stipulates that the 11 men currently on death row will still face execution; capital punishment would be abolished only for those convicted of capital offenses in the future.

"For decades, we have not had a workable death penalty,'' Malloy said in a statement issued just moments after the 10:57 p.m. vote. "Going forward, we will have a system that allows us to put these people away for life, in living conditions none of us would want to experience. Let's throw away the key and have them spend the rest of their natural lives in jail."

Throughout the lengthy debate, lawmakers publicly struggled with their ethical, legal, political and moral convictions.

"There are many that believe by creating a law that allows us to take a life in exchange for a heinous act of murder ... is somehow protecting society and protecting ourselves,'' House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey said, as the debate wound down. "With due respect to those who feel that way, I have to disagree."

Those who believe in capital punishment invoked the Sept. 11 attacks, the Petit family murders in Cheshire and a host of other horrors as they made a case for preserving the death penalty.

"I'm a man of faith and I won't tell you I haven't wrestled with my faith,'' said Rep. Russ Morin, D-Wethersfield. "But I'm going to be clear: I'm not torn on this matter, not one bit."

Morin said his support for the death penalty is rooted in a lesson learned in kindergarten: Actions have consequences. "The perpetrators of these types of heinous crimes have made their decision,'' he said. "The decisions they've made must have these consequences."

But supporters of the repeal effort say the state's death penalty is irrevocably broken — just one man, serial killer Michael Ross, has been executed in the past 50 years, and that was after he waived his appeals. Rep. T.R. Rowe, a Republican from Trumbull who supported the repeal bill, called the current death penalty "a paper tiger."

Others pointed out that government is not infallible, and the chance, however slight, of an innocent person being executed is too grave a risk when the punishment is death.

Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, cited the case of Kenneth Ireland, who spent 20 years in prison before he was cleared by new DNA evidence. "The government does make mistakes, please remember that and support this bill," she said.

Rep. Terry Backer said he is torn by the gravity of the decision. "I agree that this bill is imperfect," he said.

But Backer, D-Stratford, noted that 289 people convicted of capital murder nationwide were later exonerated.

"Many of the mistakes we make as [a] government ... have done things that haven't quite worked out the way we hoped they would work out ... but we are always able to go back and fix those things,'' he said. "Unfortunately, when we are wrong in these cases, there is no way to put them back on track."

There were at least 15 attempts to amend the bill. Republicans offered proposals to carve out certain categories of criminals, such as cop-killers and terrorists, and make them eligible for the death penalty. Another sought to ensure that prisoners do not have Internet access. All of the amendments were rejected.

In the final hour of the deliberations, Rep. Art O'Neill, R-Southbury, proposed a nonbinding referendum on the death penalty, "a real vote by the people of the state of Connecticut [which] would provide the kind of guidance so many [lawmakers] have been seeking." Like the other efforts to tinker with the bill, this one failed.

House Republican leader Larry Cafero called the measure "a fraud on the public" because the repeal is prospective and would not apply to the 11 men currently on death row.

"How can you say in your heart and with your vote that it should no longer be the policy of the state of Connecticut to commit anyone to death and yet at the same time say, 'except for these 11 guys?''' Cafero said. "How do you justify that?"