Senators change minds on death penalty

Hartford - State Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, doesn't believe in the death penalty.

She says she would like to see it abolished in Connecticut, and until last week, was ready to lend her vote to the latest repeal bill in the legislature.

But Prague said she changed her mind after an emotion-filled meeting last Friday at the Capitol with Dr. William Petit, the lone survivor of the 2007 Cheshire home invasion that left his wife and two daughters dead.

She and fellow senator Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, reversed their pro-repeal positions after sitting down on separate occasions with Petit and his sister, Johanna Chapman, and his lawyer, Jeffrey Meyer, the son of Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford.

"I just feel that if there is anything I could do to help this man at all, I've got to do it," Prague said Wednesday. "This man has been through enough without us making it more difficult on him."

Maynard said he was particularly convinced to change his vote after he heard Petit, Chapman and Meyer detail their experience with the legal system.

At one point during legal proceedings, the defendants were referred to as "gentlemen" while Petit's wife and two daughters were called the "alleged victims," Maynard said.

"That statement stung me as I thought about being in his place," Maynard said Wednesday night. "I know that is not a reason to change your mind on the position, but you're suddenly confronted with: What in the world are we doing to people that have suffered these kinds of horrific experiences?"

Proponents of capital punishment declared a victory Wednesday afternoon after learning that the two senators from southeastern Connecticut had changed their minds.

Several legislators said that without the Prague and Maynard votes, they no longer expect the capital punishment repeal bill to pass the Senate. Prague, a senator since 1994, said it's rare for her to flip her stance like this on an issue.

"I don't think I've ever changed my mind on something that I had made up my mind to vote for," she said.

The last effort to abolish Connecticut's death penalty squeaked through the Senate with a 19-17 vote in 2009. The bill also passed the House but was vetoed by then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican.

The current bill, which last month passed the Judiciary Committee, would end the death penalty in Connecticut for future murders, making life imprisonment without parole the new maximum sentence. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, has indicated that he would sign such a bill.

Prague said she would still vote to end the death penalty at some later date, just not now before the second accused killer in the Petit triple homicide stands trial. Petit's wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 48, and his daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, were all killed during the invasion and the family's house was burned. The wife and one of the daughters were also sexually assaulted.

"I did not realize that I was that 18th vote," Prague said of her swing-vote position. "Even if I am, I can't do it to the Petit family."

Steven Hayes was sentenced to death last year for the Petit murders. The trial of the second man, Joshua Komisarjevsky, is scheduled for September.

"We don't think the timing is particularly good for Dr. Petit and what he's going through," Maynard said of the bill. "I won't vote for a repeal and I hope we don't actually call it up for a vote this year."

Maynard and Prague also said they shared the concerns of Petit's lawyer that a new state ban on capital punishment could be used by defense attorneys to obtain a more lenient sentencing for the second accused killer.

Maynard said he does support revamping the habeas corpus appeals process in Connecticut for death penalty cases so that it is easier on victims' family members and doesn't turn killers into media celebrities.

State Rep. Steve Mikutel, D-Griswold, a leading proponent of keeping capital punishment, praised the two senators for supporting "Dr Petit's quest for justice."

"This is a victory for justice if this holds - justice for all of Connecticut's innocent victims of murder," Mikutel said. "The majority of the people of Connecticut want to keep the death penalty for cold-blooded killers like Steven Hayes and Michael Ross."

State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, who introduced the repeal bill in the Judiciary Committee, said he doesn't think the bill has the votes to pass the Senate.

However, he said he hopes that death penalty opponents can still sway some lawmakers' opinions before the regular legislative session ends next month.

Ten people are on death row in Connecticut.

Day staff writer Jeffrey A. Johnson contributed to this article.


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