With a new Democratic governor, 2011 seemed like the year the legislature would repeal Connecticut’s death penalty, until the sole survivor of a triple homicide appealed to lawmakers to wait. On Thursday a state senator said the wait may be over.
Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, said he will be sponsoring a prospective bill to repeal death penalty this legislative session. Three years ago the legislature passed a similar measure, but former Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed it.
Meyer said he’s confident enough votes exist in the House to pass the bill this year. However, it’s still unclear whether there are enough votes in the Senate. He said the issue will likely to come down to two Democrats—Senators Andrew Maynard and Edith Prague.
Last year Prague and Maynard, who had been supporters of the bill, retracted their support after meeting with Dr. William Petit, the sole survivor of a brutal 2007 triple-homicide at his Cheshire home.
Petit, his sister, and their lawyer urged the senators not to vote for the repeal, as it could have become impossible to get a death penalty sentence for the second man accused of murder in that case: Joshua Komisarjevsky.
Explaining her position, Prague grabbed headlines when she told CTNewsJunkie “They should bypass [Komisarjevsky’s] trial and take that second animal and hang him by his penis from a tree out in the middle of Main Street.”
Without their votes, there was not enough support in the Senate and the bill was never brought to the floor. But last month a jury in New Haven handed Komisarjevsky a death sentence, bringing the Cheshire case to an end.
Prague, who is recovering from a recent stroke, has indicated to Meyer that she would require some tailoring to the bill that almost passed last year. In order to gain her support, Meyer said the bill would have to include some provision that ensures anyone on death row would be held in solitary confinement for the duration of their life sentences.
Meyer said he has not yet spoken to Maynard, whose vote would also be necessary to clear the Senate chamber.
Reached by phone, Maynard said he has always been a supporter of repealing the death penalty but thought it would be impossible to have a rational discussion about it on the Senate floor when jury selection for the Komisarjevsky trial was all over the news.
“I know it may seem a little schizophrenic but I hope people can understand my issue was with the sort of inflammatory conditions at that time,” he said.
While he said he’s withholding his final judgement until he sees what ends up in the bill, Maynard said he supports the concept and thinks the repeal is likely to pass this year.
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, a supporter of the death penalty, said he didn’t buy Maynard’s argument. If someone wants to have a debate about ending capital punishment, “you got to be able to do it in the face of a Petit type case,” he said.
It’s hard to respect a lawmaker’s position when the death penalty is appropriate in deplorable circumstances one year and should be abolished the next year, he said. He said the Cheshire case was a good example of why capital punishment should stay on the books.
“After hearing the evidence in the Petit trial, how someone could believe those two gentlemen should not be put to death is beyond my comprehension,” he said.
The renewed debate over the issue comes months after a Stanford professor released a study finding the application of Connecticut’s death penalty to be “not only arbitrary but is also impermissibly discriminatory.”
The study by Prof. John J. Donohue III evaluated the application of capital punishment by comparing all 4,686 murders that took place in the state between 1973 and 2007. Of those murders, 92 resulted in capital felony convictions and 29 went to a death penalty phase. Nine received the death sentence.
Overall, Donohue found that the application of the punishment was largely random and had more to do with factors like race and geography than the heinousness of the crime.
“I found that cases prosecutors charge as capital are virtually indistinguishable in these measures of deathworthiness from cases where prosecutors choose not to bring capital charges,” he wrote.
The study found that of the nine crimes that warranted the death penalty, only one of them was among the 15 most egregious crimes.
Donohue said the location of a crime seems to impact whether a trial will go to a death penalty phase. Someone who commits a murder in Waterbury is far more likely to be sentenced to die than elsewhere in the state.
Race also plays a role in who receives the punishment. A minority defendant who murders a white victim is three times as likely to get a death sentence than a white defendant, the study found.
Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D- New Haven, has been pushing for a repeal of the death penalty for years. He said the Donohue’s conclusion that the punishment is racially unfair isn’t a new idea.
“We all know there’s a racial component to this,” he said.
Cafero said it’s wrong for the study to treat every single death penalty case the same—each case has its own circumstances. He argued that death row’s two most recent tenants, Komisarjevsky and his co-defendant Steven Hayes, are white and they are not the only white convicts to be sentenced to die in Connecticut.
Holder-Winfield said that’s not the point.
“Even if you believe everyone on death row is guilty, there is definitely inequality built into the system,” he said. “Nobody says there are no white guys on death row but if you’re black you’re more likely to get the death penalty.”
If people wanted to to try the death penalty in every single case where it would apply, Holder-Winfield said he would reconsider pushing for its abolition. He said he offered as much in 2009 but no one wanted to take him up on it.
After the prospect of a repeal dissolved last year, Holder-Winfield said he wasn’t planning to push the issue this year. He reasoned if he waited a few years the emotions generated by the high-profile Petit case may dissipate.
It’s also a tough issue to tackle especially in an election year, he said. But with other lawmakers like Meyer voicing concerns this year, Holder-Winfield said he’s ready to make the push again.
But he wasn’t ready to predict the bill’s success this year.
“I’ll be working the votes until it’s time to pass the bill,” he said. “If it hits the floor it will only be because we have the votes.”
He also wasn’t ready to count on Prague.
“Until I’ve heard her confirm it, I don’t put her in that category,” he said.