Christine Stuart photo
Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven (Christine Stuart photo)

By the time they convened the press conference Friday afternoon, opponents of the death penalty were too late. Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell had already vetoed the bill, which would have abolished the death penalty.

“The death penalty sends a clear message to those who may contemplate such cold, calculated crimes,” Rell said in her veto message. “We should not, will not, abide those who have killed for the sake of killing; to those who have taken a precious life and shattered the lives of many more.”

Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, the bill’s main proponent, said he met with Rell last week to talk about the issue. He said that although he is not surprised, he is disappointed by her veto message.

He said when they met for about a half-hour last Wednesday they both agreed that the death penalty was not a deterrent. However, she specifically cited it as such in her veto message.

“There is no doubt that the death penalty is a deterrent to those who contemplate such monstrous acts,” Rell wrote in her veto message.

Ben Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, said he came to Connecticut Friday with hope that he would have an opportunity to change the governor’s mind. But by the time he had an opportunity to speak with her, Rell already had vetoed the bill.

“She took umbrage when I compared her state to Texas. I told her it’s colder here, but the numbers don’t lie,” Jealous said, referring to the disproportionate number of minorities on death row and the disproportionate number of death row inmates prosecuted in Waterbury.

Andrew Schneider, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, testified earlier this year that seven out of 10 of Connecticut’s death row inmates are African-American or Latino, whereas only 9 percent of Connecticut’s population is African-American and 10 percent is Latino.

Jealous opined that these men are being killed because of place and race.

“There’s no way to make the death penalty more fair,” Jealous said. “You’re spending millions of dollars killing the killers that you’ve already caught.”

Death penalty opponents vowed to continue the fight, even though the legislature does not have the votes to override Rell’s veto.

Speaker of the House Chris Donovan, D-Meriden, said he was impressed with Holder-Winfield’s efforts to get the bill passed this year and would consider it for a veto session, but conceded that getting 11 more votes in the House would be a tough sell.

He said the last time the House voted in the death penalty there were only 60 votes in favor of abolition. This year the bill passed the House with 90 votes. The Senate voted 19-17 to abolish the death penalty. In order to override a veto the House would need 101 votes and the Senate would need 24 votes.

While Rell did speak with Jealous and met with Holder-Winfield, Ben Jones, executive director of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, said she did not meet with the murder victims’ families who are in favor of abolishing the death penalty.

Jones said when they first approached the governor about a meeting she was “too busy with the budget.” Then, when he called a second time, she was considering it. But when he called Thursday he was told “the governor doesn’t have to have a reason” for not wanting to meet with the families.

Holder-Winfield said that is extremely disappointing because he would have yielded his time with Rell to the victims. He said the governor owes it to the people of the state to give this issue the same kind of consideration she claims to give all the bills that reach her desk.

The two co-chairmen of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Rell Thursday asking her that if she vetoes the bill to submit a proposal which makes the current system more workable.

“She disagrees with Dr. Petit, who along with a number of legislators have suggested that the current law is in fact unworkable,” Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, said Friday.

In 2003 a report on the death penalty commissioned by then Gov. John Rowland concluded that the only real way to speed up the death penalty process would be to provide more resources to the state’s prosecutors and to the court system.

However, Lawlor suggests that Rell is doing the exact opposite by having her budget office order the prosecutors not to spend the money in light of the recent budget crisis.

“I believe that the current law is workable and effective and I would propose that it not be changed,” Rell said in her veto message squarely addressing the invitation by the two lawmakers to make her own recommendations. 

Despite the passionate opposition to the governor’s veto Friday, she seems to have public opinion on her side.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 61 percent of state residents supported the death penalty rather than replacing it with life in prison without parole.

A staunch supporter of the death penalty, Dr. William Petit Jr. thanked Rell for her veto Friday. Petit’s wife and two daughters were brutally murdered in their home in July 2007.

“I want to thank Governor Rell for her moral courage and clarity to stand up for what is right and just with her veto of the bill to abolish the death penalty,” Petit said. “The death penalty is the appropriate just and moral societal response to those who commit capital felonies.”