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Hartford - One of the most unusual trials in recent memory in Connecticut is set to begin this week, when seven of the 11 men on the state's death row will be brought into a makeshift courtroom at a prison in Somers as they challenge the fairness of the death penalty.
The inmates are suing the state, alleging racial and geographic biases in how prosecutors seek the death penalty and seeking to have their death sentences overturned. After seven years of legal wrangling, the trial is scheduled to start Wednesday.
"The issue is whether the death penalty in Connecticut has been administered in a discriminatory or arbitrary way," said David Golub, a Stamford attorney representing condemned killer Sedrick Cobb.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers agreed to hold the trial in a vacant housing unit at the Northern Correctional Institution and provide a video feed for the public about 15 miles away at Rockville Superior Court. The inmates will sit at tables in a prison day room with their attorneys, while other tables will be set up for Judge Samuel Sferrazza and prosecutors, according to lawyers in the case and Correction Department officials.
Correction Department spokesman Brian Garnett declined to discuss specifics of security, including how many correctional officers will be in the room and whether the inmates will be shackled to the tables.
A similar arrangement was made for a hearing in the case in December 2007, when five death row inmates involved in the lawsuit were shackled in cubicles in a gymnasium at the Northern prison, home of the state's death row.
Members of the media and public watched the proceeding on a video screen in the Rockville courthouse.
The key evidence for the inmates is a study by Stanford University professor John Donahue, a former Yale University professor who reviewed the nearly 4,700 murders in Connecticut from 1973 to 2007. Among those, Donahue said 205 were death penalty-eligible cases that resulted in a homicide conviction, and defendants in 138 of the 205 murders were charged with capital felony.
The end results of those murder prosecutions were 66 capital felony convictions, nine death sentences and the execution of serial killer Michael Ross in 2005.
Donahue said he found that minority defendants who murder white victims are three times as likely to receive a death sentence as white defendants who murder white victims. He also found that minority defendants who commit death penalty-eligible murders of white victims are six times as likely to receive a death sentence as minority defendants who commit death penalty-eligible murders of minority victims.
The study, which was commissioned by the chief public defender's office, also concluded that Connecticut's capital punishment system was arbitrary and includes geographic biases.
Donahue said that although the death penalty is usually reserved for the "worst of the worst" cases, eight of the nine death sentences affirmed between 1973 and 2007 were not among the 15 most egregious cases. He said death penalty-eligible defendants in Waterbury were sentenced to death at much higher rates than such defendants elsewhere in the state.
"A comprehensive assessment of this process ... reveals a troubling picture," Donahue wrote in the study. "Overall, the state's record of handling death-eligible cases represents a chaotic and unsound criminal justice policy that serves neither deterrence nor retribution."
State prosecutors disagree with the study's findings and deny any biases in the way death penalty cases are pursued. Prosecutors hired their own expert who reviewed death penalty cases and disputed much of the Donahue report.
The inmates involved in the lawsuit include killers condemned before 2008: Cobb, Daniel Webb, Richard Reynolds, Robert Breton, Jesse Campbell, Lazale Ashby and Todd Rizzo. Three other death row inmates, Russell Peeler Jr., Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, are not part of the lawsuit.
The 11th man on death row, Eduardo Santiago, had his death sentence overturned by the state Supreme Court in June and awaits a new penalty phase. He's also not part of the lawsuit.
Of the 11 men on death row, six are black, four are white and one is Hispanic. Of their 15 victims, 10 were white, four were black and one was Hispanic.
The state abolished the death penalty earlier this year, but only for future capital crimes committed on or after April 25.
Sferrazza ruled in July that inmates in the lawsuit couldn't raise the issue of the state's repeal of the death penalty.