Cafero said the prospective nature of the bill is a political calculation that undercuts the moral arguments made by opponents of the death penalty.
Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, one of the most vigorous supporters of the repeal effort, didn't dispute Cafero's view that the prospective part of the bill was born as a compromise. "But the reality is I am in a room with 150 other people and I'm not so young that I believe … I know everything,'' said the New Haven Democrat. "Part of what we do here is, we figure out how do we make things happen."
Holder-Winfield said he favors complete abolition, even for the 11 occupants of death row. But, he said, "If I can't get the state to stop executing people that are already on death row, at least I can stop the state from executing people that may be on death row in the future."
Opponents of capital punishment say Connecticut is a key part of their strategy to take the question of the constitutionality of the death penalty to theU.S. Supreme Court. When Malloy signs the Connecticut bill, New Hampshire will be the only New England state with the death penalty.
"We're not going to be able to abolish the death penalty in Georgia, where Troy Davis, an innocent man, was executed,'' said Jealous, the NAACP president. "Or Texas ... until we can go to the Supreme Court and abolish it for the entire country. And we won't be able to do that until we can prove to the Supreme Court that a majority of the states have abolished it. ... Connecticut is the tipping point state."
A small group of repeal supporters, several of them family members of crime victims, watched the debate from the House gallery.
The sentiments of family members were invoked by those on both sides of the issue. Rep. Michael Molgano, a Republican from Stamford, said he understands the impulse for retribution felt by some people who lost loved ones to murder. But Molgano, who broke with his party's leaders to support the repeal bill, said he also spoke with others who say the death penalty brings no solace.
"Life imprisonment without the possibility of release is a severe and appropriate sentence for those deserving permanent exile from society," Molgano said.
A communicant at St. Bridget of Ireland Church in Stamford and a member of the Knights of Columbus, Molgano invoked the words of Pope John Paul II.
Life in prison with no possibility of release, Molgano said, "values life while upholding justice."
A bill repealing capital punishment in Connecticut cleared both the Senate and the House of Representatives in 2009, but was vetoed by then-Gov.M. Jodi Rell.
On Wednesday, her successor, Malloy, reiterated his belief that capital punishment has no place in the state's criminal justice policy.
"I'm pleased the House passed the bill, and when it gets to my desk I will sign it,'' Malloy said in his statement. "I want to be careful in the tone of my remarks, out of respect for the gravity of the issue at hand and out of respect for people on both sides of the issue. When I sign this bill, Connecticut will join 16 other states and almost every other industrialized nation in moving toward what I believe is better public policy."