Christine Stuart photo

(Updated Friday)The Senate spent several hours Thursday night and into Friday morning debating a bill that would abolish the state’s death penalty in favor of life in prison without the possibility of parole. The bill finally passed 19 to 17 at 4:11 a.m. Friday morning.

Just eight days ago, the House approved the measure 90 to 56. The Senate vote marks the the first time the General Assembly voted to abolish the death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states to reinstate the death penalty in 1976. If Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell signs the bill Connecticut would become the third state to abolish the death penalty over the past five years.

However, Rell will not say if she would veto the bill, but has said she supports the death penalty for the most “heinous crimes.” She told reporters Thursday morning that if it passes she would like the Senate to immediately transmit it to her office for consideration.

New Jersey abolished the death penalty in 2007 and New Mexico abolished it this past  March. New York’s death penalty law was declared unconstitutional in 2004 and the legislature there has rejected all attempts to reinstated capital punishment.

The cost of capital punishment in Connecticut didn’t play as big of a role as it did in New Jersey and New Mexico. Most of Thursday’s debate in the Senate centered around lawmakers trust in the criminal justice system, the workability of the current statute, and conscience.

Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, who introduced the bill and supported it, said the criminal justice system is fallible. He said mistakes and errors happen.

When five of the 10 individuals on death row were prosecuted in Waterbury it’s hard not to question if the law is being applied appropriately, he said.

McDonald also argued that the current death penalty is unworkable and in most instances is extraordinarily cruel to families who wait for decades and decades for closure which may never come.

Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said the death penalty is irreversible. “It’s dangerous to have a system were we have the absolute power to take a life,” he said. He said the way the death penalty is applied is very subjective. He urged lawmakers to act with humility and pass the bill.

Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said he believes the current death penalty “allows our state to be more safe.”

Kissel who has several prisons in his district said there are individuals that pose such a threat to society that sometimes the death penalty needs to be utilized. He said when life is terminated that is the end of the threat.
 
Sen. Sam Caligiuri, R-Waterbury, said if the death penalty is flawed then the legislature should devote its efforts toward improving it. “Don’t throw it out the window,” Caligiuri said.
 
McDonald said he would have been willing to entertain such a debate, but none of the 187 legislators submitted any legislation proposing changes. He said the Judiciary Committee co-chairmen went to the Chief State’s Attorney and asked him to come up with a proposal.
 
“The death penalty is unworkable,” and the efforts to reform it in 1995 failed, McDonald said.
 
Sen. Ed Gomes, D-Bridgeport, said the death penalty is not targeted at the “worst of the worst.” He said there’s discrimination based on the race of the defendants and the race of the victims.
 
Gomes said of the 4,600 murders in the state over the past 30 years only 13 people have made it to death row. Two of those individuals are no longer on death row and one, Michael Ross, was executed in 2005 after giving up on the remainder of his appeals.
 
There are 10 individuals that remain on death row and even if passed this law would not prevent the state from executing them and the two parolees charged with the murder of a Cheshire mother and her two daughters in 2007. The bill being debated applies to all capital crimes committed after Oct. 1.

After more than seven hours of debate on the bill Republicans introduced the first of 26 amendments they filed on the bill. A total of five amendments were called before the Senate took a final vote on the bill. 

The bill’s margin of victory in the House and the Senate was not enough to override a gubernatorial veto, but many lawmakers on both sides of the issue felt is was a healthy debate to have on a very important issue.