HARTFORD — The long drive to abolish the death penalty in Connecticut marked another milestone Wednesday when it cleared a key legislative committee.
The 24-19 vote in the judiciary committee broke largely along party lines and came on the same day a new Quinnipiac University poll was released, showing broad support for capital punishment among state residents.
"Connecticut voters said, 62-31 [percent], that repeal was a bad idea,'' Sen. John Kissel of Enfield, the ranking Republican on the committee. "For those of my colleagues who feel that they know better, I would say that the people of Connecticut are pretty darn smart. They know that we use the death penalty pretty rarely, but they believe that it has a valuable function in our state."
The poll of 1,622 registered voters in Connecticut was conducted March 14-19 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.
Gary Holder-Winfield, a Democrat from New Haven who is the legislature's leading voice against capital punishment, questioned the poll's value. He noted that the survey asked only whether abolishing the death penalty is "a good idea or a bad idea." But in previous polls, when respondents are given a choice between the death penalty and life in prison without the possibility of release, the gap between supporters and opponents has narrowed considerably.
"The state is basically split in half,'' Holder-Winfield said.
Quinnipiac has polled on the death penalty on nine occasions since June 2000. In most of those surveys, the poll asked whether residents favored or opposed the death penalty and the breakdown was generally around 2-to-1 in support of capital punishment.
However, when a follow-up question has been asked — do you favor the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of release — support for the death penalty fell below 50 percent (reaching an all-time low of 37 percent in favor of capital punishment in January 2005, the last death penalty survey conducted before a triple homicide in Cheshire in the summer of 2007 that has shaped much of the debate.)
At a news conference several hours before the judiciary committee vote, Quinnipiac Poll Director Doug Schwartz cited a May 2009 poll, which found residents favoring the death penalty by a 2-to-1 ratio, even though that survey also gave respondents the option of choosing life in prison without the possibility of release. "We found virtually the same numbers that we did today," he said
To some lawmakers, poll numbers don't matter. "This must never be a matter of a poll,'' said Sen. Ed Meyer, a Democrat from Guilford who believes the death penalty should be abolished.
"We can't vote on life-and-death issues because of a poll,'' Meyer added. "A poll depends a great deal on how the question is phrased ... [and] you don't vote on issues of conscience on the basis of a poll.''
Rep. T.R. Rowe, a Republican from Trumbull, also voted to back the bill. "In an effort to promote a culture of life, that we ought to value all human life, all the life that God has put on this earth ... I'm going to support the repeal today," said Rowe, one of just two Republicans to vote yes (the other was Rep. Richard Smith of New Fairfield.)
Even if the bill becomes law, the 11 men currently on Connecticut's death row will be grandfathered in and could still face execution. Only one man, serial killer Michael Ross, has been put to death in the state since 1960.
The bill now goes to the Senate, where it has traditionally faced a challenge. Last year, after clearing the committee, supporters of repeal expressed cautious optimism, thanks largely to the election of Gov.Dannel P. Malloy, a capital punishment foe.
But the issue never came up for a vote in the Senate after after Democratic Sens. Edith Prague and Andrew Maynard announced their opposition to the repeal bill. Both lawmakers cited the brutal home invasion in Cheshire and the persuasion of Dr. William Petit, the sole survivor, as reasons for their reversal.
This year, Maynard has indicated he will likely back the bill, but Prague has yet to publicly reveal her stance.
Meanwhile, another longtime death penalty opponent, Sen. Andrew Roraback, announced he would not vote for the measure unless lawmakers also repealed an early-release program for prisoners. Roraback, R-Goshen, is running for Congress from the 5th District and has weathered heavy criticism from some of his Republican opponents for his ant-capital punishment philosophy.
On Wednesday, Roraback offered an amendment to the death penalty bill that would eliminate the early-release program, which he says represents a breach of faith to crime victims. The amendment failed and Roraback voted against the death penalty for the first time is his legislative career.
"For 18 years, I've served in the General Assembly and for 18 years, I've been of the belief that the state should not be in the business of extinguishing life,'' Roraback said. "For the 18 years I have served in the General Assembly, I have felt equally strong that the state should not be in the business of breaking faith with the victims of crime.''
Another amendment, offered by Kissel, would have mandated that anyone convicted of capital felony remain segregated from the general prison population throughout their life sentence. That amendment was also rejected.
Capital Bureau Chief Christopher Keating contributed to this story.