Methods Of Capital Punishment

Connecticut has changed its methods, and views, on capital punishment in more than 250 years. (Courant File Images / April 4, 2014)

Courant crime reporter Gerald J. Demeusy probably didn't realize at the time that he would chronicle a historic moment in Connecticut on the night of May 17, 1960.

The veteran journalist watched 2,000 volts of electricity surge through the body of Joseph Taborsky, the man condemned to die for terrorizing Connecticut during a three-month murderous robbery spree in the winter of 1956-57.

Taborsky, ironically nicknamed the "execution bandit," was the last person to die in Connecticut's electric chair. Another serial killer, Michael Ross, would not be executed until 45 years later, put to death in a different way, by lethal injection, for kidnapping, strangling and raping young women.

"As his eyes fell on execution witnesses seated before him, Taborsky lifted a hand in friendly greeting to this reporter and another who had covered his murder trial. 'Hi', he said with a smile," Demeusy wrote in his dispatch from the state prison in Wethersfield.

"Swift death came a few minutes later after 10:30 p.m. on an electrical charge so powerful it snapped his body against leather straps that laced him to the chair."

Had Taborsky's crimes never happened, the death penalty in Connecticut might have been history decades before it was repealed in 2012.

Two years before Taborsky's crimes, Connecticut legislators debated a bill that sought to abolish capital punishment. The Courant backed the legislation after publishing a series of investigative stories that examined the death penalty, concluding, among other things, that there was no proof that execution was a deterrent to crime. Gov. Abraham Ribicoff also favored abolition at the time.

But then Taborsky and his accomplice, Arthur Culombe, struck.

The career criminals held up small businesses around the state in violent robberies that escalated into execution-style shootings of both owners and patrons.

Ribicoff changed his mind about wanting to end the death penalty in Connecticut. So did The Courant, writing in a Feb. 19, 1957, editorial just days before Taborsky and Culombe were arrested, that while the newspaper did not consider capital punishment a deterrent, executing "such cold killers is to remove a dangerous force from society, in the interest of protecting its members from further killings … like putting out a fire, or killing a mad dog."

Keep the death penalty, proponents argued then and through the years, for those especially heinous crimes, for the worst of the worst criminals like Taborsky and Ross, who both eventually waived their appeals and asked to be put to death. Connecticut would become the only New England state to carry out executions since the 1950s.

Ultimately, Connecticut's death penalty would get a reputation as an unworkable punishment that helped give the state's most notorious criminals a public platform as they slogged through appeal after appeal toward an unlikely execution. Through the years, legislators debated why Connecticut remained committed to keeping the death penalty when it rarely carried out any executions.

There were moral and legal challenges to the death penalty based on statistical showings of racial, geographical and ethnic bias that opponents argued rendered it unconstitutional. Some also questioned why Connecticut wasn't changing its societal attitude toward the death penalty as the rest of the nation looked to abolish capital punishment.

But Connecticut's collective view of executing criminals did evolve. Public polls that showed residents favored the death penalty for only the most notorious killers certainly represented a change in philosophy from the early days of capital punishment in Connecticut.

A Long List Of Affronts To Religion

Back then, it wasn't just murder that sent someone to the gallows. In the 17th century, the death penalty applied to many crimes.

The state's earliest settlers looked to religion to influence what a capital crime was in Connecticut, according to Lawrence B. Goodheart, author of "The Solemn Sentence of Death: Capital Punishment in Connecticut."

The New Haven Colony appeared to have some of the strictest laws, particularly when it came to sexuality. A man caught masturbating could get the death penalty. Idolatry, blasphemy, manslaughter, man-stealing, rebellion, robbery, cursing a natural parent and profaning the Sabbath also made the list of capital crimes, according to Goodheart.

Being convicted of these crimes didn't always lead to death. Instead, there was public humiliation in the stockades for hours, boring through the tongue with a hot iron, hot-iron branding, the cropping of ears and public whipping.

Between 1642 and 1694, about a dozen people were executed in New Haven and Hartford for bestiality, adultery, infanticide, incest, rape and sodomy, according to Goodheart. The Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., lists Achsah Young as the first person in the new colonies to be executed for witchcraft in 1647.