(Updated 4 p.m.) A bi-partisan group of lawmakers announced their intentions Monday to add an amendment they say streamlines the state’s death penalty process to a bill that would prospectively abolish it.
While the lawmakers did not have many specifics about the language of the amendment, Rep. David Labriola, R-Naugatuck, said it would enable the state to more quickly execute people on death row by shortening the time limits for applying for a writ of habeas corpus.
A defendant may apply for a writ of habeas corpus after the direct appeals process has been exhausted. A habeas corpus claim challenges perceived errors in the court proceedings.
In Connecticut there is no time limit to make that application and the state rarely executes anyone on death row.
Labriola said establishing a limit could tweak the system to execute offenders within seven to nine years of sentencing.
The lawmakers said their lawyers and the Chief State’s Attorney’s office are currently working on the amendment but assured reporters it would be constitutional.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the state Criminal Justice Division said that Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane has met with legislators regarding the amendment at their request, but would not comment on what was discussed.
“I don’t know that I would characterize this as ‘working with them,’ other than to say that with any legislative proposal presented to us we meet with them and answer their questions,” Communications Officer Mark Dupuis said.
The amendment will be proposed if the bill to abolish the death penalty reaches the floor of the House, Rep. Steve Mikutel, D-Griswold, said. And that’s something they said they expect to happen, admitting the measure likely has the votes to clear the Judiciary Committee.
During the press conference the lawmakers present criticized their colleagues supporting the measure to abolish the state’s capital punishment system, saying they are ignoring public opinion polls indicating the public supports it.
“It’s up to a legislator to vote, not his conscience, but the conscience of the people that elected him. And the people that elected us are overwhelmingly in favor of the death penalty and they will notice how this vote goes,” Rep. Alfred Adinolfi, R-Cheshire, said.
According to a Quinnipiac poll released in March, 67 percent of the Connecticut residents surveyed supported the death penalty. The same poll also found that when asked if they prefer the death penalty for those convicted of murder, 48 percent approved and 43 percent preferred life in prison without parole.
Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, the main proponent of abolition told reporters Monday that him and his colleagues aren’t ignoring public opinion and if the opponents of abolition truly believe in maintaining the death penalty then they would have introduced legislation earlier.
Opponents also criticized Gov. Dannel P. Malloy for the support he voiced of the bill to prospectively eliminate it.
Mikutel said that he and the constituents he has spoken to about it were very disappointed in Malloy’s position. The governor said he supports the death penalty for those currently on death row, but not for future offenders. You can’t have it both ways, Mikutel said.
“I mean either you’re for the death penalty or you’re not for the death penalty. He seems to be quite inconsistent here,” he said.
In many ways the press conference mirrored one held in February by opponents of the death penalty. Then, family members of murder victims spoke in opposition to the death penalty. On Monday two family members spoke in favor of it.
Bridgeport minister Stuart Brush told the audience how his son was murdered in 1983 and said that abolishing the death penalty would signal that lost lives like his son’s were of “less than capital importance.”
Brush said that his son’s murderers were able to plea down to disappointingly short sentences, one of them was only convicted of armed robbery. If you take the death penalty bargaining chip off the table, prosecutors will lose leverage over murderers, he said.
Labriola agreed. If capital punishment is removed as the most severe punishment, offenders would fight a sentence of life without parole with the same level of persistence, he said.
While the bill to abolish the death penalty is expected to pass the Judiciary Committee, Labriola said the makeup of the House is more likely to oppose the measure. However a similar bill passed both the House and the Senate in 2009, only to be vetoed by former Gov. M. Jodi Rell. But Malloy’s support has some speculating that this year will be the year the measure will be passed.
Mikutel said it’s too soon to throw in the towel.
“Let’s wait for that day to come and see if legislators listen to the people,” Mikutel said.
But proponents of abolition like Holder-Winfield have seen this act before. In 2008 and 2009 the Judiciary Committee heard testimony about streamlining the death penalty, yet no solutions were immediately apparent and haven’t been since.
The Judiciary Committee are looking to vote on the bill Tuesday.