A bill to repeal the death penalty wasn’t among the concepts the Judiciary Committee raised Friday but committee members say it’s something the committee will address this session. If they do, it’s going to a tight vote in the Senate.
“The bill will be raised and I think it will be a very close vote in the Senate,” Judiciary Committee Co-Chairman Sen. Eric Coleman said after the committee’s first meeting.
Coleman said the bill will be similar to the one proposed last year, substituting life without parole for the death penalty for everyone convicted after it goes in to effect. Offenders sentenced to death before the bill’s passage would remain on death row.
It is unclear where Sen. Edith Prague will come down on the issue this year. Prague has supported a repeal of the death penalty in the past. However she retracted her support last year after meeting with Dr. William Petit, the sole survivor of a brutal 2007 triple-homicide at his Cheshire home.
Prague never ruled out the possibility she would support future efforts to repeal the law but if she’s planning on supporting it this year, she hasn’t made her position known.
“I’m still sitting on the fence,” Prague said Friday in a phone interview. “I’m agonizing over it.”
She said she has been grappling with the death penalty for years and incidents have forced her to re-evaluate her position more than once. Initially, Prague said she supported capital punishment. She said the granddaughter of one of her neighbors was one of the victims of the last person Connecticut executed, Michael Ross.
“I always thought he deserved the death penalty,” she said.
“Then along came Tillman,” she added.
James Tillman sat in prison for 18 years before DNA evidence exonerated him from a rape conviction. Prague said it forced her to examine her support of the death penalty. When the Senate passed a bill to repeal it in 2009, she was among its supporters.
“Then along came Dr. Petit,” she said.
Petit, his sister, and their lawyer urged her 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. She complied and the bill was never raised.
Though she does not serve on the Judiciary Committee, Prague said she would be there when they held a public hearing on the bill.
“I need to listen to all the details,” she said.
While Prague’s vote may still be in question, supporters can expect Republican Sen. Andrew Roraback to maintain his opposition to the death penalty. Roraback was the only Republican who cast a vote to repeal capital punishment in 2009. On Friday he said the fact that he is running for Congress this year does not change his beliefs.
“I’ve never viewed the death penalty as a partisan issue. No one has been tougher on crime in the Senate than me,” he said.
Roraback pointed to his opposition of the inmate early release program the legislature passed last year as well as his support of the “three-strikes you’re out rule.”
“On the death penalty it is a matter of conscience,” Roraback said adding that his position is the same as that of his church.
But it’s a tough position in an election year given the public generally supports the death penalty. A Quinnipiac poll from last year found voters support the death penalty 67 to 28 percent. That number was much higher among Republicans, who supported it 80 – 18. The number is much closer 48 to 43 percent when given a choice between the death penalty and life in prison without parole.
Meanwhile, Sen. John Kissel, R- Enfield, said he will maintain his support of the death penalty, which he said serves a valuable function in the criminal justice system. While it’s rarely carried out in the state, Kissel said it’s been used by state attorneys to help conclude cases and get critical evidence.
“I think there’s a very strong chance we’ll take up the death penalty. The votes are very close, especially in the Senate,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney said he and Senate President Donald Williams had yet to get a head count of where Democrats in the chamber stood on the issue.
“Sen. Williams and I are working hard on that because we do want to have a vote on the death penalty. We’re both advocates of the repeal and want to try to make it happen this year if we can,” he said.
If they can get to an 18 – 18 tie in the chamber, they will be looking to Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman to cast her vote in their favor. On Friday, Wyman said she’d be up for it.
“Throughout my whole political career, I have been against the death penalty. So if the bill reads that it’s prospective, I will definitely vote to get rid of it,” she said.
It wouldn’t be the first time Wyman broke a tie vote on a controversial issue. Last year she cast her vote to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.