Death penalty repeal gets another chance

Two New Haven legislators are leading the fight to make Connecticut’s death penalty a thing of the past.

On Jan. 5, Democratic State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield (D-New Haven) introduced a bill that would repeal the death penalty in Connecticut. The bill, co-sponsored by newly elected Rep. Roland Lemar (D-New Haven, Hamden), revives the 2009 fight for death penalty abolition, which ended when Republican former governor M. Jodi Rell vetoed a repeal bill that passed both houses of the state legislature. The fate of the bill, which has not yet been discussed, is highly uncertain. While Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy has said that supporters of abolition can count on his signature, passage in the legislature is far from guaranteed.

The current bill, which is also co-sponsored by State Sen. Edwin Gomes (D-Bridgeport), now heads to the Judiciary Committee, which must set a date for a public hearing on the issue. Holder-Winfield, who is the vice-chair of the committee, said an entire day will likely be devoted to the bill, probably in late February or early March.

At a meeting of the Yale College Democrats Monday night, Holder-Winfield spoke about his plans to guide repeal through the legislature as he did in 2009. A freshman representative at the time, Holder-Winfield’s success was the first time Connecticut had ever passed a law repealing the death penalty. The likelihood that repeal will become law in 2011 has been helped by Malloy’s election, he said, but many legislators have been replaced since 2009 and opponents of repeal have had time to organize their efforts.

“When I first started working on this in 2009, people assumed nothing was going to happen because I was a freshman,” Holder-Winfield said. “But the other side is ready now – they’re doing their work.”

One noteworthy opponent of repeal is fellow Democratic State Rep. Mary Fritz, who represents Cheshire, Conn. – the town known across the country as the site of the Petit family triple murder. In July 2007, two men invaded the home of William Petit and sexually assaulted his wife and two daughters before killing them and setting the house on fire. Petit was badly beaten but survived.

Steven Hayes was convicted on 16 of 17 charges in the incident and sentenced to death on Dec. 2. Jury selection for the trial of another suspect, Joshua Komisarjevsky, is due to begin Feb. 22.

While Fritz said she has always supported the death penalty, she felt particularly strongly about it as a representative of Cheshire.

“The murders had a terrible effect on the whole town, and I’ve had many people thank me for standing up for the death penalty,” Fritz said.

She added that she believes any repeal of the death penalty, if it becomes law, will not be retroactive and thus will not affect Hayes’ execution.

Despite Holder-Winfield’s success in 2009, the current bill faces an uphill battle.

In a Quinnipiac University poll released last October, 76 percent of Connecticut voters said they favored the death penalty for Hayes. Since 2005, support for the death penalty has risen in the state from about 59 percent of voters to 65 percent.

“The death penalty sends a clear message to those who may contemplate such cold, calculated crimes,” Rell wrote in her June 2009 veto message. “We will not tolerate those who have murdered in the most vile, dehumanizing fashion.”

Holder-Winfield and Lemar said they have no illusions that repeal’s passage in the legislature will be easy, especially with the backdrop of the Cheshire case.

“It’s going to be a challenging conversation, but it’s one that needs to happen,” Lemar said. “I understand what the polls suggest, and we want to tread lightly in how we talk about the [Cheshire] case, but if you remove yourself from the situation and determine the best public policy, it should be easy to see that the death penalty is not the best option.”

Lemar, who served as New Haven’s Ward 9 Alderman until he resigned to run for state representative, said that one of his main concerns with the death penalty is its administration, which he said has been unfair and uneven. In particular, he said, there have been cases in which people who have been put to death are later found innocent. The state should not be in the business of putting people to death, he said.

At the Dems meeting on Monday, Holder-Winfield argued that more people would support repeal if they were better educated about the death penalty. Contrary to popular belief, he said, there is no evidence that the death penalty deters potential murders, and many convicted murderers do not qualify for the death penalty.

“If you murdered someone in my neighborhood, unless it was me, you wouldn’t get the death penalty,” he said, referring to the various considerations governing eligibility for the death penalty under state law.

Lemar said he was inspired as he watched Holder-Winfield fight as a little-known freshman representative for a measure as controversial as death penalty abolition. Now a freshman himself, Lemar said he will take orders from Holder-Winfield about how to proceed with the bill.

“I watched Gary struggle day after day for months, with will and determination, to get support for repeal and bring it to a vote, ultimately to have it be vetoed by the governor,” Lemar said. “I was so impressed by his passion and his ability.”

The House of Representatives voted 90-56, a surprisingly wide margin, to repeal the death penalty in 2009. Four years earlier, Holder-Winfield’s predecessor in the 94th District, Bill Dyson, who served for 32 years, led a failed effort for repeal.

Nationwide, 35 out of 50 states maintain the death penalty. New York, New Jersey and New Mexico have abolished it within the past seven years. In New England, New Hampshire is the only other state with capital punishment. Connecticut has only put one man to death in the past 50 years: serial killer Michael Ross, who was executed by lethal injection in New London on May 13, 2005.

There are currently ten men on death row in Connecticut.

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