After several hours of emotional debate on the fourth anniversary of the execution of Michael Ross, the House voted 90-56 in favor of a bill to repeal the state’s death penalty.
If enacted, the legislation would apply only to crimes committed after the bill becomes law and would not impact those already on death row. It’s unclear what kind of reception the bill will receive in the state Senate, but Gov. M. Jodi Rell already has said she supports the death penalty for the most heinous crimes.
During the debate, four representatives shared personal, painful stories of loved ones lost to violent crime. Of those four, only one—Rep. Larry Butler, D-Waterbury—voted against the bill.
Butler said his brother was murdered in 1985. After the vote, he said it appears that the other three lawmakers have found closure over the years.
“I wish that I would have,” Butler said. “But I haven’t.”
Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, said that 19 years ago his grandmother was raped, beaten, and then suffocated. He said the individual who killed his grandmother was never apprehended, but he knows killing that individual would not bring his grandmother back.
“Death makes a miscarriage of justice,” Candelaria said, adding that putting the individual in a prison with four walls for the rest of his life would be a bigger punishment.
Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, said that her brother had planned to be a lawyer and she was going to be an environmental science professor. But all that changed when her brother was murdered years ago.
However, life is a continuum, Urban said. Years after her brother’s death her son has become a lawyer. She said she feels that taking the life of a person who took someone else’s life shows who we are as a state.
“This is about us and our humanity,” she said.
Urban said she supports life imprisonment because “it helps me feel some justice in the world on the loss of my brother.”
Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, D-Hartford, who also voted in favor of the bill, shared the loss of her stepson 15 years ago, and talked about her family’s terrible grief after his death. She said he had gone to pick up his wife, who was four months pregnant at the time, when he was struck by gunfire and killed.
Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, urged lawmakers to set aside the emotional debate and to be honest about how the death penalty is applied in Connecticut. He said that if the state is never going to execute anyone, then it should repeal the death penalty.
But some lawmakers disagreed with Lawlor, claiming the state can streamline the appeal process to make the death penalty more workable, especially in light of two high-profile murders. The 2007 triple murder in Cheshire and the recent shooting of a 21-year-old student in Middletown were referenced several times during the debate as crimes deserving of the death penalty.
Rep. Steven Mikutel, D-Griswold, who voted against the bill, said he doesn’t think eliminating the death penalty will help the families of victims find justice.
“There’s no reason the legislature can’t give them a workable death penalty,” Mikutel said.
Rep. David Labriola, R-Naugatuck, said abolishing the death penalty would be a slap in the face of victims’ families.
But Lawlor’s comments seemed to bring the discussion back to an uncomfortable reality.
“Who are we kidding? We’re never really going to do this,” Lawlor said. He said three of the state’s 10 death row inmates committed their crimes in the 1980s and are still in the early stages of their appeals.
Ross, who was executed on May 13, 2005, was able to make it to the death chamber because he worked with prosecutors to give up his appeals, Lawlor said. Even as he walked to the death chamber where he was put to death by lethal injection he could have decided he wanted to proceed with his appeals and the execution would have been stopped, Lawlor said.
For some lawmakers the death penalty is a racial issue.
“We have a problem with the way we practice the death penalty in this state,” Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven and the bill’s lead sponsor, said. “Justice is not blind where I live.” He said criminals are not often given the death penalty there.
“Thank God James Tillman was not on death row,” Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, said. Tillman spent 18 years in jail for a rape he did not commit and was exonerated in 2007 by newly found DNA evidence.
Hewett, who voted in favor of the bill, said the ” death penalty is never going to be a deterrent because you can’t legislate morality.”
Rep. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, asked members to consider their votes carefully, and wondered “why some people are on death row, and others aren’t?” He said there were 30 murders in the city of Hartford last year and “no one is going after those murders with the same zest” with which others are investigated and prosecuted.
Mikutel said there’s no evidence to indicate Connecticut’s criminal justice system is racially biased and encouraged lawmakers to disregard arguments to that effect.
There’s currently a lawsuit pending regarding a racial disparity study of death row inmates in Connecticut.