Conn. death row inmates fight sentences

The trial of seven Connecticut death row inmates seeking to overturn their death penalties on the basis of judicial bias began Wednesday at the Northern Correctional Institute in Somers, Conn.

The seven inmates, all convicted of murder before the repeal of Connecticut’s death penalty last spring, claim that racial and geographic bias unjustly affected their sentencing. The inmates’ case is largely drawn from the research of former Yale Law School and current Stanford Law School professor John Donohue III GRD ’86, who analyzed discriminatory bias in capital cases within the Connecticut justice system from 1973 to 2007.

When Connecticut became the 17th state to abolish the death penalty on April 25, legislators worded the repeal legislation so that it did not apply to those who had been sentenced to death before the repeal date.

The trial, presided over by Judge Samuel Sferrazza, began with testimony from Chief State Attorney Kevin Kane, according to the Hartford Courant. Amid security concerns, it is taking place in a makeshift courthouse in the prison, with a live video stream for the media screened 15 miles away in a courthouse in Rockville, Conn. Donohue, a noted statistician, will serve as an expert witness for the inmates and will likely give testimony next week, he said.

Donohue began work on the study six years ago, while he was still a Yale Law School professor specializing on the use of the death penalty as a deterrent, and completed it in 2011. The study, which has not yet been published, examined the 4,686 murders committed in Connecticut over three decades and the resulting nine sustained death sentences. Since 2007, two more men have been sentenced to death, bringing the state’s total number of death row inmates up to 11. Donohue said he and a group of Yale Law School students created an “egregiousness rating system” that considered victim suffering, victim characteristics, defendant’s culpability and the number of victims.

The study, according to Donohue, revealed that minorities who kill whites are three times as likely to receive the death penalty as whites who kill whites and six times as likely to be put to death as minorities who kill minorities. Additionally, the study found that the application of the death penalty is not correlated to the egregiousness of the crime, as rated by the study’s index. In fact, cases with both white perpetrators and victims were, on average, more egregious. Together, these findings suggest racial and geographic bias in the state’s use of the death penalty, according to Donohue.

“The facts seem to suggest that the state would not comply with the constitutional standards for running a death penalty regime,” Donohue said.

The offices of Kane and Gov. Dannel Malloy declined to comment, citing the ongoing nature of the case.

The seven inmates petitioning their sentences were all convicted of murder and sentenced to the death penalty before 2008, with some cases, such as that of Daniel Webb, stretching back to 1989. Four of the 11 inmates on death row are not participating in the trial, including Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, who were convicted in the brutal murders of the wife and two daughters of William Petit after breaking into their home in Cheshire, Conn, in 2007. The “Cheshire case,” as it came to be known, is “possibly the most widely publicized crime in the state’s history,” according to the Hartford Courant.

Kristi Lockhart, an associate research scientist at Yale and instructor for the psychology course “Clinical Psychology in the Community,” said she thought Hayes and Komisarjevsky were not included in the trial because of the way they could have affected the group’s demographics — both Hayes and Komisarjevsky are white.

Yale law professor Steven Duke, who teaches and writes on criminal law, said that though he has not personally read Donohue’s study, he has “virtually no doubt that discrimination occurred.” But, Duke said, the validity of the study does not guarantee any particular outcome in the trial.

Donohue said that while his background is academic, his research is highly applicable to Connecticut’s stance on the death penalty.

“From the perspective of wise public policy, I think it would be best to inter the death penalty in Connecticut once and for all,” Donohue said. “This case may be the vehicle for that decision.”

The most recent execution in Connecticut, that of Michael Ross in 2005, was the state’s first since 1960.

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