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Legislature called upon to end legal executions

Hartford - They stood in a row behind the podium in hearing room 1B of the Legislative Office Building Wednesday, more than a dozen fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters of the murdered.

Some held pictures of those they have lost over their hearts as, one by one, others took a turn at the podium to explain why they, collateral victims, don't want the killers of their loved ones killed.

They were there to ask the state legislature to end the death penalty, bringing with them a petition signed by 76 family members of murder victims.

Their argument was a simple one: Connecticut's death penalty is broken; it perpetuates a system that torments the victims' families with a promise of closure that never comes.

Indeed, the only resident of death row to be executed in the past 50 years was serial killer Michael Ross, who did not die until 2005,

21 years after his arrest, and only then because he sought his own execution.

"It's time to put an end to the death penalty in this state, because we have learned that the process frequently causes more harm to surviving family members," said George Kain, an associate professor of justice and law administration at Western Connecticut State University.

"It's time for us to listen to those who have suffered through this process and to support them in putting an end to any further pain and suffering that this process causes," Kain said.

Wednesday's news conference, hosted by state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, and the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, gave voice to that pain.

'Over and over again'

Dr. Gail Canzano of West Hartford spoke of the death of her brother-in-law, Thomas E. Otte, in 1999.

"As a clinical psychologist with many years of experience of treating individuals suffering from the effects of trauma, I can tell you that the death penalty is injurious to families of murder victims. Why? Because every single court appearance retraumatizes the family, forcing them to relive the murder of their loved one over and over again," she said.

"These criminals could be put away and forgotten," Canzano said, "but instead they become celebrities, and we torture the families of their victims by dragging them through decades of publicity and court proceedings. Tell me, where is the justice in that? ... The death penalty doesn't work, and it's not possible to fix it."

Pamela Joiner of Hartford spoke of her son, Jumar, who was shot to death in 2008. And she pleaded for the state to put more resources into helping families heal.

"The year my son was killed, there were 112 homicides in Connecticut," Joiner said. "That's 112 mothers. Each of us deserves to be heard ... and yet our stories are rarely heard and our needs go unaddressed."

Elizabeth Brancato of Torrington spoke of the death of her mother, Barbara.

"I experienced the nightmare of being trapped in the criminal justice process. For five years my family and I endured the trial and the appeal process of my mother's killer," Brancato said. "The trial demanded all my attention. ... My healing was put on hold; my grief was put on hold."

Kristin Froehlich spoke of her brother's death in Georgetown.

"I learned that the purpose of a trial is not to support victims. The legal system was designed to address the law that has been broken, not to heal broken hearts and shattered lives," she said.

"One way of healing from trauma is to tell our stories. However, the legal system restricts the voices of survivors. In my case, the trial only allowed family members to speak during the sentencing.

"We couldn't face or speak directly to the man who killed my brother. We had to submit our statements in writing in advance to make sure they were appropriate and not too inflammatory, and we were cautioned against showing strong emotions."

And Walter Everett of Bridgeport spoke of the death of his son, Scott.

"A capital trial to follow through to an execution costs the state of Connecticut some $4 million," he said. "They can save two-thirds of that with life sentences.

"I am convinced that the state of Connecticut ought to abolish the death penalty and take some of the millions of dollars which they would save by using that money for victims' services, to allow victims to start to heal," Everett said.

Passage uncertain

Holder-Winfield, who is co-sponsoring the bill to abolish the death penalty with state Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, said he thinks the bill has a good chance of passing this session, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said he would sign it into law.

The governor's promise might bring out opponents to the bill and make its passage more difficult this time, he said.

"I'm a realistic person. I think it's more difficult this time," Holder-Winfield said. "But if I am successful, the death penalty will be abolished."

It is the same bill, he said, that passed both houses of the legislature in 2009 and was vetoed by then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

As drafted, the bill would apply to all future murder cases and not to the cases of those already on death row or those currently being prosecuted, such as Stephen Hayes, who was sentenced to death, and Joshua Komisarjevsky, yet to be tried, for the 2007 murders of the wife and daughters of Dr. William A. Petit Jr. of Cheshire.

Asked if the bill wouldn't open up a new avenue of appeal for everyone on death row, Holder-Winfield said, "I have concerns about what the impact is, but this is the bill that I think we should get through the House and the Senate."

Canzano gave her own answer to the question: "Those people have endless appeals, and I wouldn't worry about a prospective bill increasing that. They will be appealing forever."

Canzano was asked if she had any advice for William Petit, who has said that he is in favor of the death penalty.

"I am so sorry we were not able to abolish capital punishment before those murders in Cheshire happened, because we've watched over the last year ... what the trial did to that family," she said. "We watched what the trial did to those elderly parents; we watched Dr. Petit weep in the courtroom; we watched that family have to be confronted with bloody photographs, horrifying details, and I can only say that I am so sorry that Dr. Petit has to go through this.

"This family will be going through appeals for decades. I think that they will never see (Hayes and Komisarjevsky) executed.

"I have no advice to Dr. Petit except to tell him he is in our hearts and our prayers and we grieve with his family as they go through this," Canzano said.

"I urge the Connecticut legislature to see to it that this never happens to another family."

k.robinson@theday.com

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