Christine Stuart photo
Chief Public Defender Susan Storey and Patrick Culligan (Christine Stuart photo)

(Updated 7:00 p.m.) The Judiciary Committee heard from dozens of Connecticut residents Wednesday in favor of a bill that would eliminate the death penalty.

Many spoke about abolishing it on moral grounds, but the Office of Fiscal Analysis also provided a financial incentive. According to the nonpartisan office, the state would save about $4 million annually in defense and prosecution costs if the state repealed the capital punishment.

Chief Public Defender Susan O. Storey warned lawmakers that the state may not realize the savings immediately. However, she said there are other reasons they should consider eliminating it.

“There is no hard evidence that says the death penalty is a deterrent,” Storey said. She said life in prison is sufficient punishment for a capital crime and it provides adequate public safety.

Decisions on life or death create a strain on the state resources, Storey said. She explained that a copy of the 299 page transcript of the Michael Ross death penalty case costs $19,000. A copy of a recent brief filed in the ongoing capital case against Lazale Ashby will cost the state $40,000.

The Office of Fiscal Analysis report found that trial costs for death penalty cases have ranged from $157,377 in the case of Sedrick “Ricky” Cobb, to $1.1 million in the case of Michael Ross. Ross was the last person to be executed by the state in 2005.

“There are enormous economic and psychological tolls on both sides,” Storey said. “Families and participants both express deep concerns for the issue.”

For her part, Gov. M. Jodi Rell opposes the idea of abolishing capitol punishment.

“I think that I still support the death penalty for those crimes which are the most heinous,” Rell said Wednesday morning prior to the hearing. She said she’s heard the argument that eliminating the death penalty would save the state money, but “that is no reason to take up the death penalty.”

Retired Connecticut Judge Harold H. Dean also supports the death penalty, but only if a jury is absolutely certain the suspect is guilty.

In the court system, juries can decide whether a person is guilty if their faith in the accuracy of the evidence doesn’t extend beyond a reasonable doubt. Dean disagrees with such an idea when it comes to ruling on capital felonies.

“Don’t execute someone until you’re 100 percent sure,” Dean said. “All other cases have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Dean encouraged the committee to read the state’s jury charges and look at the definition of reasonable doubt. He said there is a big difference between a jury coming up with a verdict based on a reasonable doubt versus absolute certainty. Dean said he cannot tolerate an innocent person being executed, so if a jury has any amount of doubt, then the felon should be subjected to life with out parole and not sent to death row.

“It’s better to let a guilty man go free than to see an innocent man get convicted,” Dean said.

Rep. David Labriola, R- Naugatuck, asked Dean if it would be easier to abolish the death penalty instead of adjusting the state’s jury charges. Labriola said there really is no such thing as 100 percent certainty.

Dean responded to the representative saying it probably would be easier, but he still supports capital punishment. He said his argument is about stopping the wrong people from being executed, not to debate the establishment of the death penalty in Connecticut.

“I think the idea of absolute certainty is an elusive and abstract term,” said Bill Tuthill, a retired warden and assistant deputy commissioner of the Correction Department. He said there are factors that come into play when juries think they have a case solved, but then other evidence reopens the debate.

“Things do happen. Things you can’t foresee. I oppose the death penalty,” Tuthill said.

Public Defender Patrick Culligan said part of the reason why death penalty cases take so long is because lawyers are obligated to spend two to three years preparing for a trial and writing their case for the accused. Culligan described a lawyer’s preparation for a trial as similar to the time it takes to author a biography. He explained that, just like an author, lawyers need obtain all the sufficient facts and details on their client.

George Kain, faculty member for the Department of Justice and Law Administration division at Western Connecticut State University, said that by keeping the death penalty the state is sending a message to children that violence is moral.

“Killing is wrong. Any killing is wrong,” he said.

Kain quoted former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, saying, “The death penalty experiment has failed.”

Dr. Petit testifies for capital punishment

Late Wednesday, Dr. William A. Petit spoke against the bill and in favor of keeping capital punishment on the books.

Petit, whose wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and two daughters, Hayley and Michaela, were murdered in July 2007, said he supports the death penalty.

“My family got the death penalty and you want to give murderers life,” Petit said.

As he fought back tears he told the Judiciary Committee how painful it has been going through the legal proceedings as he seeks justice for his family. “It’s delay, delay, delay for no apparent reason,” he said.

“Because men murdered Michaela, she cannot make homemade sauce, play with her friends, or kiss me goodnight. Because men murdered Hayley, she cannot experience her college years at Dartmouth, row on the Connecticut River, or sit and chat with me. Because men murdered. Jennifer, she can no longer comfort a student at Cheshire Academy, talk with her parents and sister, or sit with me on our porch,” Petit said.

The two parolees charged with capitol felony in the Petit family case have yet to reach the trial phase, but the state prosecutor has recommended capitol felony and the death penalty, according to Petit.

“I think it’s easy to be academic about these issues,” Petit said when asked if his wife had opposed the death penalty. A New York Times article interviewed members of the Petit’s church and found two church members who remembered that Hawke-Petit signed a Declaration of Life.

“I think it’s something she could have done,” Petit told the Judiciary Committee Wednesday. He said he doesn’t know if she did. He said he never found the document in the safe deposit box and doesn’t know if it was somewhere in the house, which was burned down during the crime. 

Click here for a list of Connecticut’s 10 death row inmates.