Democrats in the state legislature are optimistic that this will be the year they succeed in abolishing the death penalty in Connecticut.
New Haven representatives Gary Holder-Winfield and Roland Lemar are leading a campaign to end capital punishment in the state, the latest in a series of efforts in Hartford that have so far been unsuccessful. Holder-Winfield said the Judiciary Committee will likely raise a bill repealing the death penalty in early March, at which point it will be presented at a public hearing, and the committee will likely vote on the bill in late March. Legislators said they believe that the bill can pass the State House of Representatives and Senate, and Gov. Dannel Malloy has said he will sign it into law if it arrives at his desk.
“Anything is possible,” Holder-Winfield said. “I will be doing everything possible to get the requisite number [of votes] to my position.”
With Malloy and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman at the helm of the state’s executive branch, a death penalty abolition bill passed by the House and the Senate would not face the same fate as the one passed by both houses in 2009 only to be vetoed by former Republican Gov. Jodi Rell. Still, Holder-Winfield said, public opinion will likely pose a challenge to repeal.
Holder-Winfield said public opinion in Connecticut is currently skewed in favor of retaining the death penalty, with recent polls showing 78 percent of state residents in favor of capital punishment. Resistance to death penalty abolition, he said, often stems from a misunderstanding about the possible consequences of abolishing the death penalty, he said. Opponents worry that without the death penalty, criminals would be able to get out of prison after serving only a part of their terms, he said, but the bill would actually replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole in order to prevent this outcome.
Given a choice between the death penalty and life imprisonment without parole, Holder-Winfield said recent polls show 48 percent of Connecticut residents in favor of death penalty and 43 percent in favor of imprisonment without parole.
Lemar said public opinion remains influenced by the 2007 Petit family triple murder, in which two men invaded the home of William Petit and sexually assaulted his wife and two daughters before killing them and setting their Cheshire, Conn. house on fire. Because of the severity of the incident, the perpetrators of which have been sentenced to death, constituents have been more sympathetic toward capital punishment, he said.
Holder-Winfield criticed the media for over-publicizing the Petit case, arguing that its notoriety has been an obstacle to public persuasion.
“To the media, Petit’s case is sensational and it drives viewership and readership,” he said. “However, we need to question why there is so much of incessant focus on this [Petit’s] situation.”
Despite persistent popular support of the death penalty, Holder-Winfield said he remains convinced that its repeal is necessary. The capital punishment system costs much more than lifetime incarceration, he said, and several studies have shown that the death penalty’s administration has been racially skewed.
“We cannot say the justice system is just if different people can get different results through the system,” he said. “If we can make the system more just, even if we get nothing else, that’s enough for me.”
Lemar said his support of ending the death penalty stems from his belief that the punishment itself is “simply unjust and unworthy of civilization of the 21st century,” and that it offers no “added protection” to society. The state has the duty to protect its citizens, he said, rather than condemn them to death.
Proponents of the bill will face a tight vote, Lemar and Holder-Winfield acknowledged.
“We will be doing a careful head count and make sure we have at least 18 state senators ready to vote for repeal,” said Martin Looney, majority leader of the State Senate, which has 36 members. “If we reach that number we will bring that bill forward for debate.”
Should the Senate be split exactly down the middle, Wyman has said she would break the tie in favor of repeal.
On campus, the Yale College Democrats are continuing to support legislators’ fight to abolish the death penalty. Dems President Zak Newman ’13 said repeal will “serve as a message to the rest of the country that this form of punishment is intolerable.” Newman added that the Dems will be canvassing, writing letters and lobbying representatives in support of death penalty repeal.
There are currently 11 men on death row in Connecticut.