(UPDATED 9:25 p.m.) A bill to prospectively abolish the death penalty will not be brought to the floor of the Senate for a vote this session, Senate President Pro Tem Don Williams said late Wednesday evening.
“We have a very diverse caucus and diverse opinions on the death penalty,” he explained. “There’s not the support in the caucus to overturn the death penalty.”
Williams said the Senate’s Democratic Caucus has a different composition than it did two years ago when the legislature passed a similar bill, which was then vetoed by former Gov. M. Jodi Rell. He described the group’s discussion on the subject as respectful, but said at the end of the day the votes just weren’t there.
Speculation about the fate of the bill began early Wednesday when Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, said she would not be voting in favor of repeal.
Prague said she recently met with Dr. William Petit, the sole survivor of a brutal 2007 triple-homicide at his Cheshire home. Petit, his sister, and their lawyer urged Prague not to vote for the repeal, as it could become impossible to get a death penalty sentence for the second man accused of murder in that case: Joshua Komisarjevsky.
Prague had strong words for Komisarjevsky.
“They should bypass the trial and take that second animal and hang him by his penis from a tree out in the middle of Main Street,” she said.
Komisarjevksy’s co-defendant, Steven Hayes, was convicted of the crimes last year and sentenced to death, and Petit has been a vocal opponent of attempts to end capital punishment.
Prague indicated she may still support future efforts to abolish the death penalty. But this year, she said, she can’t look Petit in the face and “not give him something that would make his life a little easier.”
The loss of Prague’s vote cast doubt that the bill could clear the Senate. Prior to Prague’s statement, it was expected that the measure would come down to an 18-18 tie vote. In that scenario, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman would likely have been the tiebreaker in favor of repeal.
But Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, who also met with the Petits, agreed with Prague’s position. He said he has not ruled out voting for a future version of the measure.
“It’s a toss-up. I don’t support the death penalty broadly but I don’t support repealing it at this time,” he said. “For my own personal reasons and as a matter of public policy, I don’t think it’s the right way for the state to act. But in this instance there are such mitigating circumstances, in my mind, that I could not in good conscience vote for repeal this year.”
Prior to the decision not to raise the bill in the Senate, its author, Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, said he still considered the bill’s passage within the realm of possibility. But he questioned Prague’s decision.
Opponents of repeal frequently point out that if the death penalty is ever abolished, even prospectively, it would serve as a basis for new appeals by everyone on death row.
So if Prague had voted “no” this year and the measure failed, but she then votes for repeal in the future, both Hayes and Komisarjevsky would then have a basis upon which to appeal their sentences, Holder-Winfield said. The nature of that case has been tough even for pro-abolition people, he said, “but you just have to do it and get it done.”
Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, whose son Jeffrey Meyer is Petit’s lawyer, explained the argument the Petits are presenting to lawmakers.
“The argument they’re making as they meet with individual senators is that defense lawyers in the Komisarjevsky case will emphasize to jurors in the sentencing phase that the state legislature and the governor have repealed the death penalty,” he said. “They will use that as an argument—‘Don’t vote for the death penalty for Komisarjevsky.’”
Sen. Meyer, who supports the repeal, said the argument has been persuasive to some of his colleagues.
Since the measure will not be adopted this year, Holder-Winfield said he likely will take some time to assess his options rather than raise the bill again next year.
If he waits a few years the emotions generated by the high-profile case may dissipate, he said. On the other hand, the legislature will be different.
“Elections have consequences,” he said, adding that it’s impossible to speculate on the ratio of supporters to opponents three years down the line.
While Holder-Winfield may take time to mull the issue, Kimberly Harrison, a lobbyist for the death penalty repeal campaign, said she will continue her fight. Holder-Winfield, she said, is not the only legislator who can propose repeal legislation.
She said many of the senators she spoke with said that this year is not the right time, and she intends to lobby for repeal during the next session, which likely would be after the conclusion of the Komisarjevsky trial.
“It’s not the answer I was hoping for, but we live to fight another day,” she said.
Following news of the announcement the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty issued a press release criticizing the decision.
“CNAD is disappointed the death penalty will remain on the books for another year – continuing to fail victim’s families, continuing to risk sentencing innocent people to death and continuing to waste taxpayer dollars,” said CNADP Executive Director Ben Jones.
Jones went on to say that the decision only delays what he called the inevitable repeal of capital punishment in Connecticut.
Christine Stuart contributed to this report.