Death row inmate challenging new state law

Hartford - The Connecticut Supreme Court for the second time has heard arguments that last year's repeal of the state's death penalty should also apply to the inmates currently on death row.

The court heard oral arguments Tuesday in the appeal of Daniel Webb, who is awaiting execution for the 1989 kidnapping and murder of bank vice president Diane Gellenbeck in Hartford.

The state Legislature abolished capital punishment in 2012, but only for future crimes. That compromise was reached after lawmakers and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy made it clear they would not approve a law that applied retroactively.

Webb's lawyers argue that putting him to death would violate his constitutional rights to equal protection by treating him differently than other murder defendants.

"It doesn't make any sense, having decided that you are not going to kill anybody, for precisely the same or even worse crimes, to continue to execute people," Webb defense attorney Michael Sheehan said outside the courtroom.

Sheehan spent little time discussing that point in court, relying instead on his briefs and arguments made by attorneys in the pending appeal of Eduardo Santiago. Santiago's death sentence was recently set aside, and the Supreme Court is deciding whether there should be a new death penalty hearing.

The court's decision in that case will decide the issue in Webb's case, said Senior Assistant State's Attorney Harry Weller.

Weller said the state believes there is no problem holding Webb and the others on death row to the law as it existed when their crimes were committed.

"People before the (new) public act are not the same as people after the new public act," he said.

Webb is one of 10 inmates on death row in Connecticut. He was convicted of capital felony for abducting the 37-year-old Gellenbeck from a downtown parking garage and shooting her to death near a golf course as she ran from an attempted sexual assault.

In a 2012 interview with The Associated Press, Webb said he's hopeful the courts will decide the new state law should apply to him.

"If you are going to abolish the death penalty, abolish the death penalty," Webb said. "I don't think you can have a law that has double standards. Abolish means abolish, doesn't it?"

The only person executed in the state since 1960 was serial killer Michael Ross, who was put to death in 2005 after he voluntarily gave up his appeals.

Most of Tuesday's arguments were spent discussing whether jurors were properly instructed on how to determine if a mitigating factor existed to spare Webb a death sentence.

Webb's lawyers had argued that he had 10 mitigating factors, from an overprotective mother to diminished mental capacity. Under state law at the time, the one factor would have been enough to require a life sentence.

Sheehan argued that jurors might have mistakenly believed they had to unanimously agree before determining that any particular factor qualified as mitigating. Under state law, if each juror found a different mitigating factor, that would still mean they all found that at least one existed, Sheehan said.

Senior Assistant State's Attorney Timothy Sugrue argued the jurors had heard clear instructions on unanimity throughout Webb's trial.

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