Here’s a little life-or-death quiz for you.
The 11 guys now on Connecticut’s death row will: A) Never be executed because this state has repealed the death penalty; B) Get juiced because the new law only ends the death penalty for future murderers; or C) continue to be a political football because of the Cheshire home-invasion killings.
At the moment, C looks like it’s the only sure answer.
It’s true a bill to repeal the death penalty has been approved by the legislature and will be signed into law by the governor. It’s also true the new law specifically says the repeal only applies to future crimes and not to the current death row dudes. But experts are certain this issue will eventually be decided by the Connecticut Supreme Court, and it remains unclear which way the justices will rule.
The big issue, explains Andrew Schneider of the Connecticut office of the American Civil Liberties Union, is that the repeal law potentially involves a major “equal protection” dilemma.
“It creates two groups,” he says. “Those who committed these [capital punishment] crimes before repeal, and those who will commit their crimes after repeal.” The question is, why should one group be subject to the ultimate sanction of lethal injection and the other group be exempt, even though the crimes may be equally horrible?
Some folks, like noted criminal defense attorney William F. Dow III for example, might say the answer has a lot to do with the Cheshire killings and lawmakers who wanted political cover for their vote in favor of repealing the death penalty.
Swarms of politicians running for office in Connecticut would prefer not to have to defend the idea of letting Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky (the two convicted Cheshire killers) escape the death penalty. So they included that little bit about the repeal only applying to future hideous murderers.
State Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, a New Haven lawmaker who’s been seeking repeal of the death penalty for ages, calls the “political cover” allegation “an unfair and cynical charge.”
Looney argues the prospective repeal provision applies to all 11 death row inmates and that it makes sense to let those guys be executed because they’ve already been sentenced under the old law.
Of course, chances a convicted murderer could get a ride on “Old Sparky” or take the death jab in this state under the old law were infinitesimal. The only person we put to death in Connecticut in 51 years was serial killer Stephen Ross. He wanted to die and dropped all his appeals.
Now, says Dow, passage of the repeal law means the odds of anyone getting juiced in our state have dropped to zero. “Nobody’s going to execute these 11 people,” he insists. “They’re going to sit there till they die.”
The ACLU has been working for years to get the Connecticut death penalty repealed. After the final repeal vote, Sandra Staub, legal director for the state’s ACLU office, said Connecticut had finally “freed itself from the danger of executing innocent people.”
Schneider, however, isn’t quite as confident as Dow about the ultimate fate of those people sitting on Connecticut’s death row.
He points out that the only other court decision in the nation involving a similar “prospective” death penalty repeal came out of the New Mexico state Supreme Court. The New Mexican Supremes declared the prospective repeal to be constitutional, meaning the two guys on death row in that state still could be executed.
“Their law is very similar to ours,” Schneider says. “And that [New Mexico ruling] is the only precedent out there right now.”
“I don’t know if anyone can say how the Connecticut court will rule,” he adds.
Meanwhile, the issue of what’s going to happen to Connecticut’s death row dudes and why the repeal was structured the way it was is continuing to get kicked around in political contests.
On WNPR’s “Where We Live” show, the whole deal got raised in an interview with Andrew Roraback, one of the Republican candidates in the 5th Congressional District race.
Roraback, a longtime critic of the death penalty, said he voted against the repeal bill because it was “disingenuous” in that it would still allow the execution of the folks already sentenced to death in Connecticut.
That brought criticism from Dr. William Petit, the sole survivor of the Cheshire home-invasion killings, who claimed Roraback was using the murders as a political ploy.
Petit has been vehemently campaigning in favor of the death penalty and against repeal, and he’s one key reason why that “prospective” repeal was included in the bill. Nobody wanted to be seen as dissing Petit after the horrors he and his family suffered.
There’s also the fact that Petit has endorsed and raised money for Roraback’s GOP opponent, Lisa Wilson-Foley, which raises the question of whether Petit himself has started using the repeal issue as political fodder.
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