State's death penalty remains hot topic

Dr. William Petit Jr. arrives at Superior Court in New Haven last Dec. 5 for the first day of jury deliberations in the penalty phase of the trial of Joshua Komisarjevsky. Petit, whose wife and two daughters were murdered in a July 2007 home invasion in Cheshire, opposes a repeal of the state's death penalty.
Dr. William Petit Jr. arrives at Superior Court in New Haven last Dec. 5 for the first day of jury deliberations in the penalty phase of the trial of Joshua Komisarjevsky. Petit, whose wife and two daughters were murdered in a July 2007 home invasion in Cheshire, opposes a repeal of the state's death penalty. Jessica Hill/AP photo

Hartford - State lawmakers heard hours of testimony Wednesday on a bill that, as written, would repeal the state's death penalty for future crimes and, some believe, could end up sparing the lives of those now on death row.

The legislation is nearly identical to a bill that passed the committee last year. That bill did not reach a vote when state Sens. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, and Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, withdrew their support after meeting with Dr. William Petit Jr., the lone survivor of the 2007 Cheshire home invasion and triple slaying.

The two men convicted of killing Petit's wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and their daughters, 11-year-old Michaela and 17-year-old Hayley, are currently on death row.

The bill calls for a "prospective" end to capital punishment, meaning that all 11 of the state's death row inmates would still face execution. In future cases, the execution sentencing option would be replaced by life imprisonment without parole.

This "prospective" aspect is viewed as crucial for attracting lawmakers who would not support a repeal that preserves the lives of those currently on death row.

But several lawyers and judicial experts have raised doubts about whether this element of the bill would withstand future legal challenges that would attempt to abolish the death penalty entirely.

That question arose again Wednesday during a long public hearing before the legislature's Judiciary Committee that started in the morning and ran late into the night.

Asked for his opinion, Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane predicted that if the repeal measure became law as written, current death row inmates could escape execution in a legal challenge.

And Susan Storey, the state's chief public defender, told legislators that her agency is poised to file such appeals on behalf of the death row inmates - including the Cheshire home invasion killers, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky - if and when the repeal bill becomes law.

However, Storey said, she doesn't think the courts would rush to rescue those inmates from "cruel and unusual punishment." It is uncertain what the justices would do, she said.

Storey noted how New Mexico's highest court recently ruled that a convicted murderer, Michael Astorga, could still be sentenced to death because his crimes occurred before that state's death penalty was repealed in 2009.

But state Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, said he believes a prospective repeal could become a full repeal once the courts get involved.

"If you're going to repeal the death penalty, then repeal the death penalty. You might even get my vote on it then," Hewett said. "But to say that you're going to repeal the death penalty and leave 11 people on death row that you think are going to see death, that's not going to happen. You know that and I know that."

Eight hours into the hearing, law students from Quinnipiac University argued in support of the legal integrity of the prospective language in the bill by referencing the New Mexico case as well as November ruling by the Connecticut Supreme Court that upheld the death sentence of Tom Rizzo, who bludgeoned a 13-year-old boy to death with a sledgehammer in 1997.

State Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, a death penalty supporter, said he remains convinced that passing the bill would result in sparing the lives of those currently on death row. "When this train leaves the station, that's it," he said.

State Rep. Al Adinolfi, R-Cheshire, a death penalty supporter, said he has spoken with dozens of attorneys about how the proposed repeal would affect those inmates, "and I haven't had one tell me that they couldn't win that case to get them out of death row."

Adinolfi also said he is concerned that the alternative - life imprisonment - would be too cushy for perpetrators of heinous crimes because inmates routinely are allowed recreation, TV and other privileges.

"Komisarjevsky and Hayes murdered my neighbors," Aldinolfi said. "They took an 11-year-old girl, raped her, tied her to a bed, poured gasoline on her and burned her, set the place on fire.

"Now we're saying these people shall be given life for crimes similar to that, better than what they have on death row. ... I just don't think we're being fair."

Petit did not attend Wednesday's hearing. In a joint statement with his sister, Johanna Petit Chapman, he suggested that the repeal bill would void the death sentences of his family's killers.

"If our lawmakers truly want to abolish the death penalty even though it is not what the majority of the citizens of Connecticut want, they need to at least be honest about it and change the language of the bill," Petit said in the statement. "There is no such thing as a prospective repeal. Passage of this bill essentially voids the death sentences of those currently on death row."

Even strong supporters of the death penalty concede that this year's repeal effort could succeed.

Maynard has said he will vote for repeal now that Hayes and Komisarjevsky have both been sentenced. Prague has yet to declare publicly how she will vote but is said to be leaning toward supporting the bill. She sat quietly in the audience during parts of Wednesday's hearing.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said that he would sign a repeal bill if it reached his desk. His predecessor, M. Jodi Rell, vetoed a 2009 bill to abolish the death penalty completely.

j.reindl@theday.com

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