Death row case to test scope of repeal

The Connecticut Supreme Court agreed Thursday to hear death row inmate Eduardo Santiago’s request to extend the recent abolition of the death penalty to his own sentence, despite the bill’s iron-clad language restricting the repeal to new cases.

In April, the state legislature passed a repeal of the death penalty, but the legislation did not apply to those sentenced to death before the law was passed. Out of the 11 inmates currently on the state’s death row, five of them have already appealed to the Court regarding the validity of their sentences. Santiago’s death sentence was overturned in June because of withheld evidence, but he will have to face re-trial unless he can successfully argue that the legislature’s appeal should apply to him, said Mark Rademacher, his attorney. State legislators interviewed were split on how they think Santiago’s case will turn out, with pro-death penalty Republicans predicting he will escape his sentence and anti-death penalty Democrats expecting the appeal to fail.

Republican State Reps. David Labriola and Arthur O’Neill said they have no doubts about Santiago’s success in appealing to the Court. Labriola called the repeal’s “prospective” language, which aims it only at future cases, “disingenuous,” echoing the concerns of many death penalty advocates who feared last spring that a repeal would be used as grounds for the appeals of sentences regardless of its wording.

Both charged that the prospective language was a ploy on the part of repeal advocates designed to rally as many votes as possible, but State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, a Democrat from New Haven and one of the most outspoken proponents of repeal, responded that it was a political compromise necessary to ensure the success of the death penalty abolition movement.

“What we did is not what I would do if I had my way, but if people say that’s not a smart way to go, then they’re not paying attention,” he said.

Holder-Winfield said he does not see good odds for Santiago’s case. Although he believes the death penalty is not an appropriate punishment for anyone, “you don’t subvert the law,” he said. He argued that because the court is bound to look at the legislators’ will in passing the repeal, they will not steer around its provision restricting it to future defendants.

State Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, another Democrat from New Haven, agreed: “There’s nothing in the language of the statute that we passed that would give any leverage to the case,” he said.

Still, Santiago’s lawyer said he remains optimistic that his client will win his appeal.

“Does Connecticut want to be that outlier state that executes people even after [the repeal] was confirmed?” Rademacher said.

The most compelling argument facing the court, he said, will be Connecticut’s status as the only state with prisoners on death row after passing a repeal on the death penalty. According to Yale political science professor Kelly Rader, however, this claim will most likely not sway the court.

“The fact that no state has ever done it before doesn’t seem legally relevant,” she said. “Constitutionally, it doesn’t fly.”

While Rader conceded that the repeal legislation means there is little logical reason to “justify executing people under the old regime,” she said she does not think Santiago’s death sentence is unconstitutional. Yale Law School professor Robert Burt, on the other hand, said he thinks the prospective repeal is a “violation of equal protection and thus unconstitutional.”

“If I were a justice I would conclude that the distinction between past and present [crimes] is fundamentally irrational,” he said. “All of the reasons or any of the reasons that the legislatures would have concluded [in passing the repeal should] apply equally.”

Santiago and two other men were convicted in the fatal shooting of 45-year-old Joseph Niwinski in West Hartford, Conn., in 2000. According to police records, Santiago was promised a pink-striped snowmobile in return for the murder.

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