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Hartford — The state House of Representatives voted 86 to 62 late Wednesday on legislation that clears the way for Connecticut to become the 17th state to bring an end to the death penalty.
The bill, which last week passed the Senate on a 20-16 vote and is headed for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s desk, abolishes capital punishment for future convictions, but keeps it in place for the 11 inmates currently on death row.
Instead of execution, worst-of-the-worst offenders convicted of “murder with special circumstances” would face life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Malloy released a statement, vowing to sign the bill.
“Going forward, we will have a system that allows us to put these people away for life, in living conditions none of us would want to experience,” the governor said. “Let’s throw away the key and have them spend the rest of their natural lives in jail.”
Voting for the repeal bill were Democratic Reps. Ed Jutila of East Lyme, Betsy Ritter of Waterford, Diana Urban of North Stonington, Kevin Ryan of Montville and Elissa Wright of Groton.
Casting “nay” votes were Democratic Reps. Ernest Hewett of New London, Ted Moukawsher of Groton, Steve Mikutel of Griswold and Tom Reynolds of Ledyard.
“It was the right thing to do in a civilized society,” Wright said afterward.
“For me it’s a personal, moral issue,” Ritter said.
The 151-member House took up the repeal bill at about 1:20 p.m. and lawmakers debated for more than 9½ hours.
The final vote tally was largely along party lines, with most Democrats in favor of repeal and Republicans opposed to it. The vote was closer this year than three years ago, when the House passed a similar repeal bill, 90 to 56.
Death penalty supporters tried unsuccessfully to attach amendments to retain the death penalty for certain offenses. There were proposed exceptions for a lethal act of terrorism, murder of a state trooper or local police officer, and murder committed in the course of a rape or a deadly home invasion.
“For the love of God, Connecticut is on the map for the worst home invasion in history,” said Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-Fairfield, who urged support for the failed home invasion exception.
The bill’s opponents all but dominated the day’s floor debate, often punctuating their speeches with grisly details of the infamous 2007 Cheshire home invasion and triple-slaying, and the terrifying years when serial killer Michael Ross was at large.
“We in this chamber are showing sympathy for the murderers and not sympathy for the victims’ families,” said Rep. Al Adinolfi, R-Cheshire, a death penalty supporter who lived five houses away from the home where Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Hayley and Michaela Petit, were murdered.
In 2009, Hewett voted for the repeal bill that passed both legislative chambers but was vetoed by then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell.
But Hewett voted against this year’s bill. What changed his mind about capital punishment, he said, was his inability to forget the heinous Petit murders and the 1999 killing of Karen Clarke and her 8-year-old son, Leroy Brown Jr., in their Bridgeport duplex.
“That really sent it home for me,” Hewett said.
Clarke and Brown’s killer, Russell Peeler Jr., is now on the state’s death row.
In a floor speech, Hewett said it is perplexing to him that society would sanction killing during war combat or by law enforcement to ensure public safety, but not for convicted murderers.
“The death penalty is not about an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth, it’s about holding that individual accountable for his actions and safeguarding innocent victims,” Hewett said. “Is it so much to ask these violent predators to forfeit their life when they didn’t give their victims a choice? I say no.”
The House bill is nearly identical to the Senate bill passed last week. It creates new imprisonment standards for future Class A felony murderers convicted of “murder with special circumstances,” what is currently known as a capital offense.
Under the bill, those convicted must be housed separately from other inmates, subjected to twice-weekly cell searches and must change their cells every three months. They would get no more than two hours a day outside their cells and would be allowed only “non-contact” visitation privileges. They could watch TV, but only basic channels.
Early in the debate, House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, grilled the judiciary committee’s co-chairman, Democratic Rep. Gerald Fox of Stamford, about the constitutionality of the “prospective” legislation that aims to preserve the death penalty for the 11 current death row inmates.
Some bill opponents, including Hewett, contend that those now on death row inevitably will use the exception-granting language in the bill to get their death sentences commuted.
But many proponents say they’re confident the courts will respect the legislature’s intent to keep the death penalty in place for those 11.
The judiciary committee’s other co-chairman, state Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, last week cited a New Mexico case as assurance.
Since 2009, New Mexico has had a prospective repeal on the books, and its highest court in a recent ruling allowed jurors the option of sentencing a convicted killer to death because his murders happened prior to the repeal.
But under questioning during Wednesday’s debate, Fox allowed that the New Mexico Supreme Court did not weigh in on the constitutionality of executing someone once a prospective repeal is in place.
Critics say the constitutionality question is critical to determining whether today’s death row would stay intact.
However, Fox cited three state court precedents, one dating to 1846 and the others to the 1950s, that led him to believe that today’s court would honor the legislature’s intent.
Nevertheless, Hewett criticized the future-crimes-only part of the bill, asking “What if we as a country abolished slavery prospectively?”
“Wait until you have the votes for total repeal,” he said. “You will not have my vote, but at least you will have done it the right way.”
Outside the House chamber, Moukawsher said he intended to vote against the repeal because the death penalty “is justice to victims.”
He presented a hypothetical scenario: If law enforcement had a chance to shoot dead someone who is now a convicted murderer in the moments before the murders took place, such use of force likely would meet with approval from today’s death penalty opponents.
“But once this crime happens, those lives become precious,” Moukawsher said of the convicted murders. “I don’t understand that.”
The last person executed in Connecticut was Michael Ross in 2005, who waived his appeals. Prior to that, Joseph “Mad Dog” Taborsky was executed by electric chair in 1960 for a 1950s killing spree.