Connecticut Supreme Court weighs death penalty repeal

Hartford - Connecticut's repeal of the death penalty for future murders last year violates the constitutional rights of the 11 men on the state's death row who still face execution, a public defender told the state Supreme Court on Tuesday.

The seven justices heard nearly 90 minutes of arguments on the repeal, which abolished capital punishment for all murders committed after April 24, 2012. The high court is expected to take several months to issue a ruling.

Tuesday's arguments came in the case of former Torrington resident Eduardo Santiago, who was sentenced to death for killing a man in West Hartford in 2000 in return for a pink-striped snowmobile with a broken clutch. The state Supreme Court overturned his death sentence last year and ordered a new penalty phase, two months after the repeal took effect.

The case has drawn interest from across the country.

A group of legal scholars from several states filed a brief with the Supreme Court opposing Santiago's execution, saying no state has ever executed anyone after repealing the death penalty. They said his execution would violate both the U.S. and Connecticut constitutions.

The repeal eliminated the death penalty while setting life in prison without the possibility of release as the punishment for crimes formerly considered capital offenses. The law was passed after Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes were sentenced to lethal injection for killing a mother and her two daughters in a 2007 home invasion in Cheshire that made national headlines.

Santiago's lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Mark Rademacher, says executing Santiago would violate his constitutional rights to equal protection and due process. He said it would be wrong for some people to face the death penalty while others face life in prison for similar murders.

Rademacher spent much of his time Tuesday arguing that the repeal created an unconstitutionally arbitrary factor - whether a murder was committed before or after the repeal took effect - in determining whether someone should face the death penalty.

Senior Assistant State's Attorney Harry Weller told the justices that the repeal should stand and denied there were any constitutional problems with it.

"This is ... a judgment made by the people of Connecticut," Weller said. "This court should validate the statute and allow the statute to act the way the legislature intended it to."

Death penalty opponents say they have mixed feelings about the repeal, because it eliminates the death penalty for some, but keeps it for others.

"What was achieved last year was very important," said David Amdur, project director for the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, referring to the repeal. "Last year was a good first step. Obviously there are 11 people (death row inmates) not covered by it. We do not support the death penalty in any circumstance in Connecticut."

It has never been clear whether Santiago was the one who pulled the rifle trigger and killed 45-year-old Joseph Niwinksi. Two other men, Matthew Tyrell and Mark Pascual, pleaded guilty in the killing and are serving life in prison. Santiago and Tyrell pointed the finger at each other.

Prosecutors said the murder-for-hire plot was hatched by Pascual, who was infatuated with Niwinksi's girlfriend, believed Niwinski was abusing her and wanted him dead. Pascual promised Santiago the broken snowmobile if he killed Niwinski.

The Supreme Court overturned his death sentence last June, saying the trial judge wrongly withheld evidence from the jury of Santiago's troubled childhood, which included beatings and sexual molestation. Defense lawyers say that evidence may have prevented the jury from agreeing on the death penalty.

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