After lengthy debate in 2009 a bill that would have abolished the death penalty made it through the House and Senate only to be vetoed by then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell. This year, the bill is back and despite a new governor who has indicated he would sign the bill, its author admitted Tuesday it may be a tough sell.
“Some people think that with Dan Malloy taking the governorship this is a done deal, wrap it up, clap your hands it’s over. I think it’s actually going to be tougher than it was the first time,” Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, said Tuesday. “It’s because of a lot of things. Partially because the case will be so visible at the time when we’re doing the bill.”
Holder-Winfield, the bill’s author, was referring to the pending trial of Joshua Komisarjevsky, which is set to begin jury selection in late February. Komisarjevsky will stand trial for the 2007 murder of a mother and her two daughters in their Cheshire home. In December his co-defendant Steven Hayes received the death penalty after being found guilty for the murders.
The high visibility of the trial is expected to have an effect on the upcoming debate to abolish the death penalty. An Oct. 2010 Quinnipiac University poll found that even some people who don’t support the death sentence supported it for the Cheshire killers.
“Similar to what we found in the Michael Ross case, support for the death penalty in a specific case can be higher than support in general. This is because some voters who oppose the death penalty in general support it for a particularly heinous crime,” said Quinnipiac University Poll Director Doug Schwartz said in a press release.
Holder-Winfield, who was recently chosen as vice-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said he has no illusions that the incident won’t impact the fate of the bill as the debate heats up.
“I don’t see how it couldn’t. It reminds people of all the emotions they felt. Some of the gruesome details will be rehashed in the media and we operate in the world of politics where facts matter, public opinion matters, all of those things matter and depending on how much it raises the passions of people, it will have an impact on whether or not we can move this bill,” he said.
However, the bill is written to be prospective, he explained, so people like Hayes who are already sitting on death row would remain there. In future sentencing the death penalty would be replaced with life in prison without the possibility of parole.
But Sen. John Kissel, a staunch supporter of the death penalty and the ranking Republican on the committee, said people should know the bill would likely affect everyone on death row because it would form a strong basis for appeals.
“My concern with any bill that’s ‘prospective only’ is that constitutionally that would certainly form the basis of an appeal. It would be cited as community standard and I believe effectively it would mean that the ten folks or so on death row right now would have their sentences commuted to life without possibility of parole as well,” Kissel said. “So it may be appealing to some folks out there to have the bill fashioned that way but I think as a practical matter it really means abolishing the death penalty for everyone both those convicted and sitting on death row including Mr. Hayes.”
Holder-Winfield said that Kissel’s concern is legitimate but also said that is not the intention of the bill. While making it clear he was in opposition to the death penalty, he said it would be disingenuous of him to push the bill in an effort to commute sentences already given.
On Tuesday Holder-Winfield was frank about his assessment of his bill’s chances given the increasingly complicated nature of the debate.
“To be honest with you I don’t know. I don’t know where people’s minds will be, how that case will have an impact on us at the precise time when this bill comes through,” he said.
In addition to the Komisarjevsky trial, the bill faces other challenges, he said, including some new faces in the state’s legislature and the fact that people may not be thrilled about taking up the death penalty debate again so soon.
“It really becomes a matter of whether or not, as the sponsor of this bill I can figure out how to solve the problems, which is to get the requisite number of people to vote with me,” he said. “There’s a mixture of things that I believe will make it difficult to do. That being said, I believe it’s the right thing to do and we are pushing it forward.”