After less than two hours of debate Tuesday evening, the Judiciary Committee passed a bill that would prospectively abolish the death penalty in the state of Connecticut.
Committee Chairman Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Hartford, said he saw many reasons to abolish the death penalty in addition to fundamental moral objections. The state rarely executes anyone, the penalty tends to disproportionately affect minority groups and poor people, and it’s inconsistently applied depending on what jurisdiction the crime takes place in, he said.
But Coleman said the committee should consider what type of society it wants in Connecticut.
“[Abolishing the death penalty] would put us further aligned with countries throughout the world which we have more in common with than countries we consider aggressive and regressive,” he said.
But Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said that he believes the death penalty still has a place in society. Kissel, who’s district has six correctional facilities, said that without the threat of a death penalty an inmate could attack or kill a correctional officer and the state would have no way to punish them for it.
He was not the only opponent to bring concerns to the table. Rep. John Hetherington, R-New Canaan, said the death penalty is useful as a bargaining chip for prosecutors. Using capital punishment as leverage the state has been able to get offenders to plead guilty to their crimes and give up accomplices, he said. And in light of how infrequently the state actually puts someone to death, Hetherington downplayed fears that innocent people could be wrongly executed.
“The idea that we risk executing innocent people is at worst a theoretical possibility. So I’m not sure that what we’ve talked about earnestly and passionately has any basis in reality,” he said.
But Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, disagreed. Since 1973, she said 124 people have been removed from death row after they were exonerated by evidence. She also cited the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas and was later found to be innocent.
“It’s pretty clear errors are made in capital cases,” she said.
Bye said that even though Connecticut rarely executes anyone, keeping it on the books as a bargaining tool represents a cruel hoax on the families of murder victims who suffer through years of court proceedings and appeals.
The committee discussed the effect abolishing the death penalty would have on the 10 people currently on death row.
“Should this bill move forward, there will be immediate appeals. I have no doubt they will throw out the sentence for those on death row,” Kissel said.
He said the reality of the situation is that, even couched in prospective terms, the bill represents the abolition of the death penalty. Why bother calling it prospective when that is not how it will work, he asked.
Sen. Sen Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, said it’s better policy not to retroact laws. But he also said everyone on the committee has been wrestling with the death penalty issue.
“I’ve been tortured by it since law school,” he said.
But Meyer said he took council from the words of Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who said “From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.”
Meyer said before he left the house Tuesday morning, his wife — who was aware that the committee would be voting on the death penalty later — told him it was the reason he was elected.
Before the vote passed, opponents of the bill said they would be offering an amendment on the floor that would re-purpose the bill to streamline the death penalty process to more quickly execute offenders.
The abolition bill’s main proponent, Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, said his opponents are lawmakers who know how to write laws. If they wanted a bill to streamline the death penalty, they should have written one before deadline, he said.
Nonetheless, Holder-Winfield said he plans to speak with other lawmakers in the House to discourage them from adding any amendment to the bill, which would force his measure back to the Senate.