After more than 10 hours of debate, the state Senate last Thursday approved a measure replacing the death penalty with life in prison without parole by a vote of 20 to 16. In hopes of pressuring state representatives in Hartford to approve the measure, city officials, including Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and New Haven Police Department Chief Dean Esserman, held a press conference at City Hall Tuesday calling for repeal.
Esserman said the repeal of capital punishment is “long overdue” in the state.
“Discipline [that works] is swift and certain,” he said. “The death penalty is neither.”
At the press conference, state Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, a Democrat from New Haven who helped shepherd the repeal bill through the Senate, and Jerry Streets, the pastor at Dixwell Congregational Church and former Yale chaplain, emphasized the importance of Connecticut’s repeal as a message to the rest of the nation. If the bill passes, they said, New Hampshire will be the only state in New England that allows the death penalty.
Looney said the death penalty is inappropriate because the criminal justice system is imperfect. He cited several cases of improper convictions in Connecticut, including James Tillman, who served a prison sentence for 16 years before being proven innocent, and Kenneth Ireland, who was exonerated after serving 19 years in prison.
In 2009, a similar bill repealing the death penalty passed both chambers of the state’s General Assembly, but was vetoed by Republican then-Governor Jodi Rell.
“The death penalty sends a clear message to those who may contemplate such cold, calculated crimes. We will not tolerate those who have murdered in the most vile, dehumanizing fashion,” she wrote in her June 2009 veto message.
Should the House approve the current bill, however, Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, has promised he will sign it into law.
A major point of contention in last Thursday’s Senate debate involved the fate of the 11 inmates currently on the state’s death row. Despite assurances by Democrats that the bill is “prospective,” applying only to future cases, Republican senators worried that repeal would give current death row inmates grounds to appeal their sentences. But Democrats cited the case of New Mexico, where the death penalty was prospectively repealed in 2009 and the state’s Supreme Court subsequently ruled that a prisoner sentenced to death before the repeal could not have his sentence lowered on appeal.
Democrats also amended the bill to create a special felony charge, “felony murder with special circumstances,” which they said they designed specifically for the purpose of replacing the capital sentence.
Prisoners convicted of the charge will be placed in isolation in a maximum security prison and will be subject to increased searches.
In the past 50 years, Connecticut has put only one person to death. In May 2005, the state executed serial killer Michael Ross, who requested the death penalty when faced with the alternative of life in prison without parole.