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The Connecticut Supreme Court should take the opportunity to clarify that a repeal of the death penalty must be repeal for all.
The General Assembly a year ago approved and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed into a law a repeal of the death penalty and replaced it with life imprisonment without possibility of parole for the most heinous of murders. But the legislature made it a prospective change. Those already on death row would still face execution.
We believe those who oppose the death penalty, as this newspaper long has editorially, should have the courage and consistency to outlaw it in all instances. Summarizing our reasons for opposing government executions - the penalty is disproportionately used against minorities; it has no deterrent value; it cannot be undone if there is a mistake; it is a barbaric act that lowers the state to the level of the killer.
At the time of the law's enactment we questioned the constitutionality of the exception made for the 11 men on death row. It violates the U.S. and Connecticut constitution's equal protection provisions to expose some individuals to the death penalty not because of the nature of the murders, but simply because of the date on which they committed the crimes.
Now the Connecticut Supreme Court is weighing that very issue, hearing oral arguments Tuesday in the case of Eduardo Santiago, sentenced to death for the 2000 murder-for-hire killing of Joseph Niwinski in West Hartford. There is an added twist in this case. Last June the court suspended Mr. Santiago's death sentence, saying a judge's ruling withheld pertinent evidence from the jury during the penalty phase. The high court ordered the case returned to a jury on the death penalty question.
The Supreme Court has several choices. It could uphold the repeal law, which is unlikely. It could toss the entire law, leaving the legislature to either repeal the death penalty for all or leave it in place. It could leave the repeal in place, but find the provision exposing current death row inmates to executions unconstitutional and commute those sentences to life. Or it could issue a decision narrowly tailored to Mr. Santiago's case only.
We urge the court to leave the repeal in place and extend it to those on death row, thus providing constitutional equal protection. It is time for Connecticut to get out of the execution business.