Senate votes to abolish the death penalty

Hartford — After 10½ hours of debate that stretched into the early morning, the state Senate on Thursday approved legislation that would end capital punishment in Connecticut for future crimes.

The 2 a.m. vote was 20 to 16 largely along party lines in the Democrat-majority chamber. Democratic Senators Edith Prague of Columbia, Andrew Maynard of Stonington, Andrea Stillman of Waterford and Eileen Daily of Westbrook all voted yea.

The "prospective" bill calls for abolishing the death penalty for future convictions, but not for the 11 inmates now on death row. The measure replaces execution with life imprisonment without the possibility of release.

The Senate had been the last high hurdle for those wanting to end the death penalty since last year when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy replaced Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who vetoed a 2009 repeal bill. Malloy says he will sign this year's bill.

The bill is still subject to approval in the House, where it is expected to pass. State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, a chief proponent of the legislation, said he hopes the House could vote within a week or so.

Early in the day Wednesday, Senate Pro Tem Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, announced that he and other pro-repeal Democrats had finally rounded up enough votes to assure passage.

"We intend to take a historic step," he said. "We intend for Connecticut to become the 17th state to repeal the death penalty."

"We need to move forward as a state to embrace what other states have done," Williams said, "what almost every other state in New England has done, what almost every other country throughout Europe and countries that we look to as allies in the world, what they have done."

In opposition, Senate Republicans joined with relatives of the mother and two daughters killed in the 2007 Cheshire home invasion, and of Barry Rossi, the victim of a murder-for-hire plot in 2003.

They warned that the repeal bill in the Senate might end up sparing the lives of the killers now on death row.

"The idea that the death penalty can be repealed prospectively only, and that our action today will ensure that the 11 murderers currently serving on death row in Connecticut will one day face execution, is a mere fallacy," said Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield.

Dr. William Petit Jr., the lone survivor of the Cheshire home invasion and triple slaying, said the senators who changed their minds about capital punishment and now support repeal have been "led astray" in believing that today's death row inmates will still face execution after the legislation passes.

"Prospective repeal is absolutely a lie," said Johanna Chapman, Petit's sister. "It's not what I want, but if they, the abolitionists, want to do away with the death penalty in the state of Connecticut, at least be honest about it and call it total repeal."

The Senate took up the bill just after 3:30 p.m. and debated a series of unsuccessful Republican amendments until almost 11 p.m. Legislators then took turns explaining their views and reasoning on capital punishment.

Prague took the microphone at about 12:30 a.m. and explained how after agonizing for months over the vote, she was ready to support the repeal bill.

Democratic leaders successfully attached their own amendment to the bill to create new imprisonment standards for future Class A felony murderers who are convicted of "murder with special circumstances," or what is currently known as a capital offense.

These inmates would face tougher conditions than the general prison population, similar to the living arrangements for current death row inmates.

They would be housed separately from the other inmates and get no more than two hours a day outside their cells. They would be subjected to twice-weekly cell searches, would have to change cells every three months, and would be allowed only "non-contact" visitation privileges. They could read books and watch TV, but only basic channels, no cable.

Pro-repeal Democrats said the amendment was key to gaining wider support for their bill because it assuaged concerns that prison life might be too cushy for worst-of-the-worst convicts.

A later amendment proposal by Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, that would have set even tougher prison conditions for those inmates and restricted their TV viewing, failed on a 14-21 vote along party lines.

In her post-midnight speech, Prague recalled how she once came to strongly support the death penalty after her neighbor's grandchild was murdered by serial killer Michael Ross – who was executed by lethal injection in 2005.

"I was so angry at Michael Ross, I only wanted an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and I thought the death penalty was very appropriate for him," Prague said.

But her position changed over the case of James Tillman, who spent 18 years in prison on rape and assault convictions before his exoneration by DNA evidence in 2007. The legislature later voted to compensate him $5 million for the wrongful imprisonment.

"Our justice system had made a mistake and sent him to prison, where he spent years of his life for something he did not do," Prague said. "And I thought to myself, 'what if he had gotten the death penalty?'" So she voted for the 2009 repeal bill that Rell vetoed.

Then came the Cheshire murders. Prague said she couldn't bring herself to support a repeal bill last year after an emotionally charged meeting with Petit, Chapman and their lawyer.

At the time, only one of the two killers, Steven Hayes, had been tried and convicted. Joshua Komisarjevsky would not be sentenced until later in the year. Prague said Petit's lawyer told her it would be almost impossible for Komisarjevsky to get a death sentence if she voted for the bill.

"Dr. Petit has suffered enough, and I wasn't about to cause him more problems," she recalled.

The Petit delegation also met with Maynard, who flipped his vote as well last year, prompting party leaders to not hold a formal vote in either chamber.

Earlier this year, Prague received a personal visit from Tillman. "So I am going to support repeal because there are too many mistakes made in our justice system for me to risk doing anything else," she said.

But proponents of the death penalty countered that there is no doubt that all 11 men sentenced to die in Connecticut are guilty.

"I am confident that in Connecticut, under our death penalty statute, under the exhaustive appeals process that we have, that there is no one on death row who is innocent," McKinney said. We're not dealing in theory, we're dealing with the fact we are not in Illinois, not in Texas, not in Florida, but here in Connecticut."

And speaking earlier with reporters, McKinney suggested that pro-repeal Democrats were being disingenuous with Prague. "I believe she has not been given the real story and the true answer to the legal fight that will be brought, and the likelihood that those 11 sentences will be commuted to life in prison," he said.

The difference between a "prospective" repeal and a full repeal is a crucial distinction, as a number of lawmakers have say they'll only support legislation that does not spare the lives of current death row inmates.

Repeal supporters, including Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, co-chairman of the legislature's Judiciary Committee, said that they remain confident that the future crimes-only part of the bill could withstand court appeals by death row inmates seeking to overturn their sentences.

He noted how New Mexico's highest court upheld the prospective portion of that state's repeal law in a recent ruling that a convicted murderer can be sentenced to death because his crimes happened before the 2009 law.

Maynard did not give a floor speech, but said afterward that he believes the forward-looking aspect of the proposed law would remain intact through court challenges. "I feel comfortable with that," he said.

But McKinney and Kissel challenged that assertion that the state court system would respect lawmaker's intent to retain the death penalty for just the 11. "The folks on death row will use this to get off of death row," Kissel said.

Kissel raised additional questions when he announced late in the afternoon that his staff received an email from New Mexico's state attorney general that, according to Kissel, clarified that the New Mexico court ruling should not be considered the final say on the prospective part of that law.

Several Republicans drew a comparison between the death penalty law and last year's U.S. Navy SEALs raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound, pointing out how Bin Laden's killing was cheered and celebrated across the country.

"I didn't see anybody speaking out against what we did," said Senator Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich. "I know it's not apples to apples…but the concept is essentially the same."

Michael Ross was the last person executed in Connecticut. Before that, Joseph "Mad Dog" Taborsky died in the electric chair in 1960.

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