Victims' relatives favor abolition of death penalty

Hartford - Rae Giesing of Groton has lived through the horror of losing a child to murder.

Six years ago, her adult son, Gregory Giesing, was killed in his Groton apartment by a 19-year-old man with a sawed-off shotgun. The killer, who also killed Gregory Giesing's stepbrother, Derek Von Winkle, was sentenced to life imprisonment.

On Wednesday, Giesing recalled during a gathering of death penalty opponents in the Capitol that she was glad the murderer, Ian Cooke, wasn't sentenced to death.

"I want him to think about it for the rest of his life," she said.

Giesing was among a group of nearly two dozen relatives of murder victims who on Wednesday urged lawmakers to pass legislation that would end the death penalty in Connecticut and replace it with life imprisonment without parole.

"If our legislators really care about us, they will get rid of the death penalty once and for all," said Elizabeth Brancato of Torrington, whose mother, Barbara McKitis, was raped and murdered in 1979.

Death penalty opponents are cautiously optimistic about the chances for a successful repeal bill this year, now that both killers in the 2007 Cheshire home invasion have been convicted and sentenced to death.

Last year, two pro-repeal legislators, state Sens. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, and Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, opted against voting for repeal during the second killer's trial out of respect for Dr. William Petit, the lone survivor of the triple slaying.

But Maynard has said he would now support a "prospective" bill to end the death penalty for future crimes - one that would not affect the 11 convicts already on death row.

Prague said she is still deciding how she will vote, but said she would consider a repeal bill if it makes prison life exceptionally tough for those who would have faced execution.

Wednesday's gathering, dubbed "Abolition Day," was organized by the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut and state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven.

Holder-Winfield is sponsoring this year's death penalty repeal bill, which is still being written and has yet to be scheduled for a public hearing.

The group said the state's capital punishment system, with its numerous appeals, is too hard on the victims' families.

"Twenty years of waiting for closure is just insane," Giesing said.

Khalilah Brown-Dean of New Haven told how her 21-year-old cousin, Brian Patterson, was shot to death at a party in Lynchburg, Va. "A 19-year-old stood over him, fired nine shots into his body as he begged for his life and others begged for theirs."

She said the killer would have been eligible for the death penalty but was instead sentenced to 31 years in prison.

An associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, Brown-Dean said that various capital punishment reform proposals to shorten the appeals process in death penalty cases won't fix the system because there still could be wrongful convictions.

"Rushing an execution does not bring us peace," she said, "it only brings us questions and more doubts."

She went on: "At no point did the thought of losing his own life prevent that young man from taking Brian's life - there is simply no deterrent factor to the death penalty."

State Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, who wants to keep the death penalty, contends that the repeal bill that's likely to emerge this year ultimately would grant a reprieve to all current death row inmates - including the Petits' murderers - as the convicts would use it to overturn their sentences.

He expects the Senate vote on the repeal bill to be very close this year.

"I think a lot of it depends on whether Dr. Petit comes back to meet with senators again," Kissel said.

j.reindl@theday.com

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