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House of Representatives debates death penalty bill

By JC Reindl

Publication: theday.com

Published April 11. 2012 4:12PM   Updated April 11. 2012 6:40PM

Hartford – The state House of Representatives continues to debate legislation that would end the death penalty for all but the 11 convicts now on Connecticut death row.

The bill, which cleared the Senate last week on a 20-16 vote, would replace capital punishment with life imprisonment without the possibility of release.

The 151-member House took up the repeal bill at 1:20 p.m. today. The legislation is expected to pass tonight despite anticipated "nay" votes from Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, and Rep. Steve Mikutel, D-Griswold. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has vowed to sign the bill into law.

Early in today's 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" part of the legislation that would end capital punishment for future convictions but not for the inmates now on death row.

Cafero and other opponents of the repeal bill contend that those 11 death row inmates could use the prospective language to have state courts overturn their sentences.

But proponents say they are confident that the future crimes-only part of the bill will withstand future court appeals.

The judiciary committee's other co-chairman, Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, a bill supporter, last week cited a New Mexico case as assurance. New Mexico has 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 before the 2009 repeal.

During today's floor debate, Fox conceded that the New Mexico court did not weigh in on the actual constitutionality of the future-crimes only death penalty ban when it allowed a sentencing option.

However, Fox cited three past Connecticut court precedents, one dating to 1846 and the others to the 1950s, that led him to believe that today's court would honor the Connecticut legislature's intent to keep the 11 inmates on death row.

Nevertheless, Cafero went on to attack what he described as the bill's moral paradox.

"How could you say in your heart and with your vote that it should no longer be the policy of the state of Connecticut to commit anyone to death, and yet at the same time, say, 'Except for these 11 guys'?" Cafero said. "How do you justify that?"

Hewett, a death penalty supporter, gave a similar argument to The Day in explaining why he plans to vote against the bill today. Those who believe in ending the death penalty should end it for everyone, he said, and not create two new and distinct classes.

"What if we as a country abolished slavery prospectively?" Hewett said.

"So why don't you just pass repeal?" he added. "It won't get my vote, but at least do it right."

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