Those opposing capital punishment are hoping that with a new governor leading the state, the legislature will agree to make Connecticut the next place to abolish the death penalty. But at a Judiciary Committee public hearing on Monday, not everyone agreed that life imprisonment is appropriate punishment for the most heinous crimes.
The bills ask the state to repeal the death penalty prospectively, which caused opponents of abolition some anxiety.
Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said he’s struggling with understanding how the legislature can repeal the death penalty and not expect those currently on death row to appeal their death sentences. He said it’s possible the two defendants in the Cheshire case, one who has been sentenced to death, and one whose trial begins this month, would be treated differently.
Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, the bill’s main proponent said that’s absolutely not true. He said it’s prospective from the date of the crime, not the date of the trial. But both the chief public defender and the state’s Chief Attorney said they would anticipate a challenge of the death penalty by those already on death row should the legislature pass the measure.
Dr. William A. Petit, whose wife and two daughters were murdered in Cheshire in 2007, spoke at the hearing, though he didn’t speak directly about capital punishment. He said it was wrong and unjust that he wasn’t allowed to give a victim impact statement during the Hayes trial. He said because he wasn’t allowed to speak on the behalf of his family, it humanized the murderer and minimized the lives of the victims.
“I hope that you’ll fix the law to be fair and consistent,” he said. “Soon I’ll be in room 6A in New Haven for the trial of the second man. If he’s convicted of a capital crime, I hope I’ll have the opportunity to speak about the special lives he stole and the wreckage he left behind.”
When asked about the length of the trial process, Petit said Connecticut should follow the example of Virginia, who settled the D.C. Sniper case in a timely fashion. John Allen Muhammad, one of the snipers, was sentenced in 2003 and was put to death by lethal injection in 2009. In Connecticut, one man has been on death row for 23 years.
“We don’t have to don’t have to look very far away from own backyard to look at a system that works in a much more efficient way than ours does,” he said.
Petit has previously spoken in favor of the death penalty. In a 2009 letter to the Cheshire Herald, he wrote that doing away with the death penalty is denying justice.
Rep. Alfred Adinolfi, R-Cheshire, agreed with Petit that the death penalty is needed, and he added that cost should not be a factor when it comes to justice.
“When a person commits a crime, they are guilty of something and they deserve punishment. We should not be worried about cost,” he said. “It’s appalling to me that money even enters the picture.”
Barry Scheck, director of the Innocence Project, told the committee the risk of executing an innocent person is greater than people believe. He said Connecticut may not be Texas, but it has had it’s fair share of wrongful convictions. He mentioned both James Tillman, who spent more than 16 years in jail before he was exonerated by DNA innocence and Peter Reilly, who was convicted of manslaughter in 1974 and cleared two years later. The murder of Reilly’s mother has never been solved, but remains one of the most publicized wrongful convictions to this day.
To some at the hearing, though, the debate over capital punishment isn’t about money, time, or an eye-for-an-eye.
Suffragan Bishop James Curry of The Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, said how society responds to heinous crimes is, “an opportunity to act out our best or worst instincts.”
“It has to do with the dignity of our society, the divine dignity of how we act,” he said.
Curry added that a recent study shows that capital punishment in Connecticut is racially and economically biased, which is another reason he says it should be dissolved.
Bishop Peter Rosazza, auxiliary bishop emeritus of the Archdiocese of Hartford, said the death penalty is a moral issue.
“It’s about respect for life from conception to natural death,” he said. “We value human life. Every person who commits a capital crime doesn’t lose the sacredness of human life.”
Michael Culhane, executive director of The Connecticut Catholic Conference, added that Jesus preached to “turn the other cheek,” which is why the Archdiocese stands behind The Connecticut Network to Abolish Death Penalty (CNADP).
Jon Crane, public relations director for CNADP, said he hopes the hearing will bring awareness to people that the death penalty is a “false promise.”
“It’s an endless process. Decade after decade nothing is changing. The system doesn’t work for families and it cannot be fixed,” he said.
He added that the capital punishment is not a deterrent to criminals.
Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, said the death penalty was put in place for a reason and shouldn’t be dismissed.
“Regarding the people who have been put to death already, I can promise you one thing, they won’t ever kill again,” he said, noting that murders who aren’t executed could find a way to repeat their crime.
Currently there are 10 people on death row in Connecticut. Michael Ross was executed here in 2005 and was the first person to be put to death in the state since 1960.
Chief Public Defender Susan O. Storey told the Judiciary Committee that capital punishment is a pricey, lengthy process that should be abolished.
“The budget implications are extraordinary,” she said. “The cost of the death penalty, just for the division of public services saw a 39 percent increase last fiscal year.”
She said capital punishment in 2010 cost the state $3.4 million. The increase was partly because of high profile cases, like the Steven Hayes trial. Hayes is one of the two defendants in the Cheshire capital case. She added that for a criminal to be executed, it tends to take at least four years.
The trial period alone, she said, can sometimes take up to two years. Money and resources, Storey said, would be better used elsewhere. Plus, she said, the process drags the families involved through a painful process that doesn’t always bring closure.
“What life without the possibility of release does give is finality,” she said.
If the bills to abolish the death penalty in Connecticut make it out of the Judiciary Committee, they will likely be reviewed by a few other committees and given a fiscal note before making it to the floor of the House or the Senate.