A Wednesday vote by the Connecticut Legislature’s Judiciary Committee may have signaled the beginning of the end for Connecticut’s death penalty.
If the bill becomes law, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole will replace the death penalty in all future capital felony convictions. Following a 13-hour public hearing on March 13, the committee approved the bill Wednesday by a vote of 24-19, with 22 Democrats and two Republicans voting in favor of repeal. Proponents said they believe the bill can pass both chambers of the General Assembly, and Gov. Dannel Malloy has said he will sign it if given the opportunity.
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“We are working very consciously to secure the votes,” said state Senate majority leader Martin Looney, a Democrat who represents New Haven and a co-sponsor of the bill. He added that a few key senators remain on the fence. “We are hopeful that the votes will be there to pass the bill.”
In order to pass the Senate and move to the House, the bill will require the support of at least half of the Senate’s 36 members. If the Senate vote is tied, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman has said she would cast a tie-breaking vote in support of repeal.
The bill has not yet been placed on the Senate’s legislative calendar, but Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, vice-chair of the Judiciary Committee and a Democrat representing New Haven, said he expects the bill to move quickly due to the historic nature of the bill.
This is the third time since 2009 that Connecticut lawmakers have considered a bill to abolish the death penalty.
A repeal bill passed both houses of the General Assembly in 2009, but was vetoed by former Republican Gov. Jodi Rell. A similar version of the bill passed the Judiciary Committee in 2011, but did not go to the floor for a vote because two Democratic legislators pulled their support for the bill, citing the then-ongoing trial of the infamous home invasion and triple homicide in Cheshire, Conn., that left William Petit without his wife and two daughters.
While much of the citizen testimony presented at the March 13 public hearing was in favor of death penalty repeal, a Quinnipiac University poll released on Wednesday revealed that Connecticut voters largely support capital punishment. According to the poll, 62 percent of voters surveyed said abolishing the death penalty is a “bad idea.”
“The [public] response to the death penalty often depends on how the question is posed in the poll,” Looney said, adding that previous polls have shown greater support for repeal when respondents are given the option to replace the death penalty with life imprisonment, instead of the question of whether the death penalty should be legal.
A Quinnipiac poll released last October found that when given the option between the death penalty and life without parole, only 46 percent continued to support capital punishment.
Opponents of the bill have expressed concern that the change would convert the sentences of the 11 prisoners currently on death row in Connecticut to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Connecticut’s chief public defender, Susan Storey, who submitted testimony to the public hearing in support of the bill, has said she will file appeals on behalf of death row inmates to convert their sentences to life imprisonment if the bill passes.
But the bill is “prospective,” Looney said, explaining that the wording of the bill does not directly affect the sentences of the 11 inmates. “However, it is to be expected that defense attorneys would seek to challenge the existing sentences,” he added.
There is national precedent for upholding death sentences issued prior to the repeal of a state’s death penalty. After New Mexico legislators abolished the death penalty for all future crimes in 2009, a death row inmate unsuccessfully appealed his sentence.
If the death penalty bill is signed into law, 58 percent of Connecticut voters believe the 11 men currently on death row should be executed, according to the most recent Quinnipiac poll.
More than 65 people submitted testimony to the March 13 public hearing, including a number of Yale students who have been lobbying to garner support for repeal.
“Repeal [of the death penalty] is one of our top legislative priorities this semester and we have had members working on new advocacy projects on the issue each week,” said Zak Newman ’13, president of the Yale College Democrats.
Newman added that this semester the Dems canvassed for the bill in Dixwell, sent approximately 400 letters to Malloy’s office and attended a rally organized by the advocacy group Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty.
In addition to the Dems, members of the Yale chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Yale University Amnesty International Chapter and the Black Student Alliance at Yale also submitted testimony to the March 13 public hearing in support of the bill. No student groups submitted testimony opposing the bill.
Connecticut has executed one person since the Supreme Court overturned the federal suspension of the death penalty in 1976.