With jury selection scheduled to begin next month in the high-profile case of accused murderer Joshua Komisarjevsky, family members of Connecticut murder victims gathered in Hartford to speak in support of a bill that would abolish the death penalty.
The bill, submitted by Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, is written as a prospective measure. So convicts already sitting on death row would still be subject to the penalty.
The Wednesday press conference focused on the emotional toll a capital punishment trial takes on the surviving family members of murder victims.
Gail Canzano, a clinical psychologist from West Hartford, said the violent murder of her brother-in-law in 1999 forced her to reevaluate the state’s legal system. The judicial system unwittingly stalls the healing process of the families of victims every time they have to appear in court, she said.
“Some years ago a sat in a courtroom not far from here and stared down the man who savagely murdered my brother-in-law,” she said. “It brought me not one moment of solace and it is not something I ever wish to repeat.”
She said her family was relieved when they were told the state would not be seeking capital punishment for the murderer. Rather than provide closure to grieving survivors, the death sentence only delays the healing process as the family waits through an endless series of court hearings and appeals, she said.
Canzano said that based on her years of experience treating patients suffering from the effects of trauma, she has found that the death penalty is injurious to the families of the victims.
“Why? Because every single court appearance re-traumatizes the family, forcing them to re-live the murder of their loved one over and over again,” she said.
The lengthy process of mandatory appeals and media attention results in notoriety and a celebrity-like status for the offender, she said. All for a false promise in a state that doesn’t actually execute anyone, she said. The state has put one person to death in the last 50 years and that was only because he waived his appeals, she said.
Some of the people on death row have been there for 20 years and there is still no execution for them in sight, she said.
When Kristin Froehilich’s brother David and four of his friends were shot to death by his landlord in 1995, no one in the state’s attorney’s office ever asked the family if they wanted to seek the death penalty, she said.
Instead, prosecutors moved forward seeking capital punishment only to drop the request in 1997 when they decided there was not adequate evidence to get the sentence, she said. Froehilich’s healing process did not begin until a friend helped her understand that the trial process was not intended to help victims, she said.
“The legal system exists to address a law that has been broken, not to heal broken hearts and shattered lives,” she said. “Learning this freed me from false hope.”
After that revelation, she was able to begin coming to terms with her brother’s violent death, she said. Unfortunately, she found that the court even restricted her ability to do that, she said. One way people heal is to talk about the events and tell their stories, she said.
But her family was instructed to avoid talking about the case and were told never to show strong emotions if they did, she said. Rather than speak directly to the man who killed her brother, Froehlich said the statement she was allowed to make at his sentencing had to be submitted to the court beforehand to ensure it was not too inflammatory, she said.
“Family members need to be heard but the legal system shouldn’t be the primary forum and the death penalty shouldn’t be represented as the most important step toward healing,” she said.
Walter Everett, whose son was murdered in 1987, said the state could save money by doing away with the practice of putting people to death and spend the money on support services for victims.
Holder-Winfield agreed that abolishing capital punishment would save the state money and pointed out that launching a capital punishment trial is more expensive than people may realize with special expenses like transportation and security.
“All of these things that you don’t see come into play. Just think about the cost to the state for maintaining a capital division to deal with these cases,” he said. “All of this stuff adds up very quickly. It costs a lot less to keep someone in prison for life.”
But Holder-Winfield admitted that the Komisarjevsky trial will be inextricably tied to the debate about the death penalty this year. And while his bill has the support of the family members at the press conference, William Petit, the only surviving victim in the Komisarjevsky case, has been a supporter of the death penalty. And the co-defendant in that case, Stephen Hayes, was sentenced to death late last year.
The lawmaker said that, while people have used the high-profile nature of that case to further their own agendas, it’s important to think about other victims too.
“How do you look at them and say that because we have a William Petit, you don’t matter?” he asked.
At the press conference those other victims were asked if they had any advice for Petit. Canzano offered empathy instead, saying that the entire state is grieving for Petit and his family. She also expressed regret that they had been unable to get the death penalty off the books before the terrible incident.
The entire state watched as the family suffered in the courtroom, reliving the events through bloody photographs and horrifying details, she said. They have decades of appeals ahead of them and it’s unlikely either of the murderers will ever be executed, she said.
“So my advice— I have no advice for Dr. Petit except to tell him that he is in our hearts and our prayers and we grieve with him and his family as they go through this. I urge the Connecticut legislature to see that this never happens to another family,” she said.
Holder-Winfield said that a public hearing on the bill has yet to be scheduled but it is likely to be sometime in March. He doesn’t expect the bill to pass easily, either. Despite the fact that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has indicated he would sign the bill, changes in the legislature will make getting the measure to his desk more difficult, he said.
On Wednesday, House Republican Leader Larry Cafero said that he supports the death penalty but indicated that fighting the bill was not high on his caucus’s list of priorities this session.