Changing Use Of Death Penalty Argues For Abolition

In 1786, citizens gathered in New London to watch the public hanging for homicide of Hannah Occuish, a 12-year-old girl of mixed race. She might have been the youngest person in the United States ever to meet such a fate.

In 1905, 73-year-old Gershom Marx, a Russian Jewish farmer, was the oldest person executed in Connecticut. During the 17th century, the colony executed 11 witches, nine of whom were women. After 1700, only black men were executed for rape. In succeeding years, immigrants, notably Irish, Italians and Eastern Europeans, went to the gallows.

Even today, capital punishment in Connecticut targets those on the margins of society. A bill repealing the death penalty is now being considered in the General Assembly. My research has convinced me that it's time to abolish a law that is unenforceable, unfair and unethical.

Here is why. It is important to observe that change has characterized capital punishment over the centuries as perceptions have changed. Convictions for witchcraft, adultery, bestiality and incest resulted in executions, but were phased out before the end of the 17th century as the religious intensity of the founding generation waned. As Puritans became Yankees, all biblical references in the capital code were dropped in 1750. The number and variety of capital statutes also diminished from a high of almost two dozen such crimes.

Concern with proportionate punishment during the early republic led to imprisonment at Newgate Prison for a variety of former hanging offenses. An unofficial gender convention has barred the execution of females since 1786 when Occuish was hanged. An execution for rape in 1817 marked the last such occurrence for a crime other than first-degree murder.

Until 1833, executions were public. The gallows provided a ritual of death emblematic of divine punishment and civic retribution for all to see. After that date, the morbid event was seen as too degrading for a democratic citizenry. The gallows were banished to the confines of county jails, but sheriffs continued to admit dozens of spectators. By 1893, hangings were isolated in the Wethersfield State Prison and only a select few were admitted. The latest technology - first automatic gallows, then the electric chair and now lethal injection - rendered a gruesome event more modern and less offensive, it was hoped.

Starting in the late 1950s, court decisions expanded defendants' due process rights and impeded implementation of the death penalty. The exception of "volunteers" for death, serial killers Joseph Taborsky in 1960 and Michael Ross in 2005, who waived appeals, made Connecticut distinct in New England as the only state to carry out capital punishment over the last half-century. With the notable exclusion of Cornell-educated Ross, almost all of the 158 people sentenced to execution by civilian courts over nearly four centuries came from the underclass. No one from the very top rank of society has ever been executed in Connecticut.

Efforts to abolish the death penalty reached their zenith during the late antebellum period, during the 1950s and again in 2009 when Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed such legislation from a Democratic General Assembly. The current situation presents a paradox: Connecticut retains a capital code, but one that has only been fully carried out since 1960 when the convict opts for death. Now with a Democratic legislature and governor, Connecticut might well be at the point of ultimate change - abolition of capital punishment - in spite of the horrific murders in Cheshire in 2007.

I've come to the belief that we can no longer enforce this law, it was never effective and it is unfairly applied. As the legislature weighs the issue of whether to abolish the death penalty, legislators need to consider the changes that have characterized capital punishment over the centuries as perceptions have changed. I believe that a careful consideration will persuade them to abolish capital punishment.

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