Family members of murder victims called upon the legislature to abolish the death penalty at a Wednesday press conference, and although a bill is being drafted, it’s unclear if there’s enough support in the Senate to pass it.
Mothers, sisters, and cousins of Connecticut murder victims spoke out against the state’s death penalty system, which they said creates two classes of murder victims — those whose death was important enough to warrant capital punishment, and everyone else.
Khalilah Brown-Dean of New Haven said last year her cousin, Brian Anthony Patterson, was gunned down while he was attending a party.
“Brian’s life mattered,” she said. “There are those who say the death penalty supports us, that it supports families by being the ultimate realization of justice, and yet the arbitrary way in which we decide which murders are more heinous, which lives are more important, leaves us with a system that is far from just.”
Victoria Coward, whose son Tyler was murdered, agreed with Brown-Dean, saying the system focuses attention and resources on the offender while ignoring grieving families. The resources the state spends to prosecute expensive death penalty cases could be better spent on other areas of the criminal justice system, she said.
“This money is not spent in a vacuum. While we spend millions for the occasional capital case, our forensic labs are underfunded so cold cases aren’t being solved. The number of counseling sessions that victims and families receive is capped and many of us go without basic needs,” she said.
Brown-Dean and Coward weren’t alone. Four other family members spoke at the press conference and repeal advocates came with a letter to lawmakers signed by 179 family members.
The group was joined by Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, who is again pushing for repeal. He said it helps to have a different perspective of the position of people impacted by murder.
“For me, this is really to demonstrate to people that when we’ve had the conversations we’ve had about what victims feel, the conversation has not been honest,” he said.
Holder-Winfield said that too often, victims’ feelings are used as an argument for maintaining the death penalty. But not everyone who’s had a loved one murdered feels the same way about having the offender put to death by the state, he said.
But while in the past there has been fairly strong support in the House, a repeal bill would be a tough vote in a Senate that appears to be divided on the issue.
Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said he felt many of the arguments against the death penalty presented at the press conference were false arguments.
“Let’s face it, there’s some crimes that are so horrific that the vast majority of Connecticut citizens feel that the death penalty is appropriate,” he said.
A Quinnipiac poll from last year found voters support the death penalty 67 to 28 percent. The number is much closer 48 to 43 percent when given a choice between the death penalty and life in prison without parole.
Kissel said the death penalty serves a valuable function in the criminal justice system. The bill that’s being considered this year would be prospective, so those who already are on death row would remain there. However, Kissel said a successful repeal of the death penalty statute would be used as the basis for new appeals by those offenders.
Holder-Winfield said he wasn’t sure whether that would happen but said that is not his intention.
“I do not intend to later go back and say we can’t leave people on death row,” he said.
Kissel also rejected the argument that the system creates two classes of victims. Prosecutors consider many factors when they make the decision whether to seek the death penalty, he said.
“To say that, ‘well the person who committed a crime against my loved one didn’t get the death sentence, so we should abolish it,’ makes no sense,” he said.
Kissel has long opposed any attempt to abolish the death penalty but it’s the votes of lawmakers who have previously supported the repeal bill that are making passage this year uncertain.
Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, has told reporters she is sitting on the fence over the issue this year. Meanwhile, Sen. Andrew Roraback, the only Republican to vote for repeal the last time there was a vote, is saying he may not do the same this year.
With Roraback’s vote unlikely and Prague’s uncertain, supporters of the bill come up short on the 18 votes necessary for a tie.
Roraback has tied his vote to repeal the death penalty with a vote to repeal an inmate early release program the legislature passed last year. So unless lawmakers scrap the early-release program, he will vote against repealing the death penalty.
Roraback said he still believes the state shouldn’t be putting people to death, but he said he also believes the state shouldn’t break promises to crime victims and their families.
The program, which allows inmates to shave up to five days a month off their prison sentences by participating in programs, breaks that promise, he said.
“In my view the early release bill we passed last year was an unconscionable breach of faith with the victims of crime and their families because it’s going to allow individuals to be released at a sooner date than what was promised,” he said.
Connecting the two issues was the best opportunity he had to call attention to the program, he said. Roraback is currently running for Congress and has been criticized by opponents for his opposition of the death penalty. He said his decision was not a result of the criticisms.
“There’s going to be a lot of noise about a lot of issues that are state issues but those aren’t the issues that matter in my bid for Congress,” he said.
It is unlikely the legislature will vote to stop the program, which is now up and running. Even if they did, Mike Lawlor, the governor’s Undersecretary for Criminal Justice, said it wouldn’t change the credits that have already been applied to inmates’ sentences.
“There’s nothing the legislature can do now that can undo what it did last year,” he said. “I understand people have different emotional and philosophical points of view but as a legal matter you can’t do it.”