As the sentencing for Stephen Hayes, a convicted murderer in the 2007 home invasion case in Chesire, begins this week, a panel of three opponents of capital punishment gathered at Yale Law School Wednesday to discuss their views.
Connecticut State Representative Gary Holder-Winfield, Amnesty International USA Executive Director Larry Cox and Juan Melendez, a man who spent 17 years, eight months and one day on death row for a murder he did not commit, took part in the discussion sponsored by more than half a dozen campus groups, including Yale Amnesty International and Saint Thomas More Catholic Chapel.
Holder-Winfield, who is in his second year in the state House of Representatives, has spoken out against the death penalty since taking office and is working on his second bill to eliminate it in Connecticut after his first version was vetoed by Governor M. Jodi Rell in 2009.In light of the Hayes trial, Holder-Winfield said that proponents of the death penalty in the legislature have told him he need only “look down the street” to see why his arguments are invalid.
Like Holder-Winfield, the other two panelists have experience advocating against the death penalty, and each spoke about the issue from his own perspective.
Juan Melendez was sentenced to death for a 1983 murder, and lived for over 17 years in a six by nine foot cell infested with roaches before another the true murderer’s confession tape was released, according to the Innocence Project of Florida’s website. Since his release in 2002, Melendez has dedicated himself to advocating for the repeal of the death penalty.
While behind bars. Melendez said he contemplated committing suicide with a rope and noose. His cellmate, a man with whom Melendez said “shared his deepest thoughts,” was eventually executed by electric chair. Melendez said he could hear the execution from his cell — the buzzing sounds, he said, “still haunt his dreams” — and the surge of electricity to the chair caused the lights in his cell to flicker.
Cox, the Amnesty International official, said he became an outspoken advocate against the death penalty after asking himself how it is just for a government to deliberately kill a citizen if it unjust for a government to deliberately inflict pain. Cox discussed whether the death penalty is, as some critics say, “cruel and unusual punishment.”
“There is inherent cruelty in telling someone ahead of time that they are going to be killed,” Cox said.
Cox brought an international perspective to the table when he argued that the nations that have abolished the death penalty have lower homicide rates. He said that five countries — China, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States — carry out 90 percent of all executions. Cox questioned how belonging to this group of nations reflects on America’s democratic values.
Holder-Winfield said his efforts to outlaw capital punishment in Connecticut are dependent on the outcome of November’s gubernatorial election. Candidate Dan Malloy has publicly said he would back Holder-Winfield’s legislation if elected, but Tom Foley said he supports the death penalty as it stands in Connecticut in a televised debate with Malloy last week.
“We’ll have a lot of work cut out for us,” Holder-Winfield said of the bill’s future if Foley is elected. “We’ll need the public to understand our general viewpoint.”
After the panelists spoke, they participated in a question and answer session with the audience of about 100.
“The panelists did a good job of convincing people that they can make a difference, especially here in Connecticut,” said Michael Gocksch ’12.
Zachary Newman ’13 agreed with the panelists. “All human life is sacred,” Newman said. “To justify killing someone because of their wrongdoing is unjust.”
Ben Jones, executive director of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, organized the event. The Connecticut Network to Establish the