Capital punishment supporters on the Judiciary Committee are seeking changes to the death penalty repeal bill given the likelihood the General Assembly will pass it this year.
Sen. John Kissel, the committee’s ranking Republican and ardent supporter of the death penalty, said Wednesday that lawmakers need to start thinking about ways to improve the bill in the event it passes.
“I’m trying to think of the next steps. As much as I know Sen. Prague is struggling with this, it just won’t surprise me if the vote gets through the Senate. Even if it’s a tie vote, I see the lieutenant governor breaking it in favor of a prospective repeal and Gov. Malloy has said he’ll sign it,” he said.
Kissel said he would like to see the bill include a provision restricting the conditions of inmates sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. When most people think of life without parole, they think of isolation, if not solitary confinement, he said.
“Certainly not inmates out in the general population able to earn rights and rewards that the other inmates are receiving. So I think we need to start that discussion now,” he said. “…If we are going to move in that direction as a state, I would far prefer to have some area of, if not isolation, then creating a separate section for these individuals to serve out their time.”
During the public hearing, he and Rep. Al Adinolfi, R-Cheshire, questioned Chief Public Defender Susan Storey on her position regarding solitary confinement.
Storey, who supports the repeal, said some prisons are re-thinking the isolation of inmates because it makes them more inclined to violence and mental illness.
Some states have moved towards programs where inmates are housed in the general population and are allowed to work jobs within the prison, she said. The money they earn is then sent to a fund for the families of murder victims.
“It seems to reduce violence and is a safer climate for prison guards. It seems like it should be the opposite, but this is what people are finding,” she said.
Kissel, whose district includes six prisons, said he didn’t aim to endanger guards and suggested the inmates be housed in a facility similar to where death row inmates are housed now. Adinolfi agreed, saying the bill would get more support if that were the case.
“Just change the name of death row, of death penalty, to maximum incarceration and leave them in solitary confinement for life. What’s wrong with that?” he said.
The people on death row are there to be punished for their crimes, he said. Adinolfi listing some of the heinous acts committed by inmates sentenced to death — five killed children, one killed a police officer. He pointed to Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, who were both sentenced to death for the 2007 Cheshire murders.
“They murdered my neighbors. They took an 11-year-old girl, raped her, tied her to a bed, poured gasoline on her and burned her,” he said.
Adinolfi said it was wrong to give people like that better conditions than what they have on death row.
“I don’t buy that and the public doesn’t buy that. In the future it will show. There’s an election year coming up and it will be an issue, believe me,” he said
Kissel and Adinolfi’s proposed changes to the bill come as support for the bill in the sharply divided Senate seems to be growing. Sen. Eric Coleman, the committee’s co-chairman, said three senators who have opposed the bill in the past may be more inclined to support it this year.
One of them, Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, was sitting in the audience taking notes during the hearing. Sen. Joe Crisco, D-Woodbridge, also watched some of the testimony.
They heard from both supporters and opponents of the bill throughout the hearing which was ongoing at 6:00 p.m.
Karen Goodrow, director of the Connecticut Innocence Project, said it was important the state get rid of the death penalty because sooner or later an innocent person will be sentenced to death.
“It is just a matter of time before we have someone on death row who is innocent,” she said.
However, the sister of the only survivor of the Cheshire home invasion disagreed, arguing that the death penalty was an appropriate punishment for cruel and depraved crimes. In written testimony, Johanna Petit Chapman said none of the people on Connecticut’s death row are innocent.
“No knowledgeable and honest party questions that the death penalty has the most extensive due process protections in U.S. criminal law. Actual innocents are more likely to be sentenced to life and more likely to die in prison while serving that sentence than is likely that an actual innocent will be executed,” she said.
Meanwhile, Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said he wouldn’t tell lawmakers what the right decision was regarding the death penalty. Legislators will have to make that morality call on their own, he said.
“Each one of you, not just in the Judiciary Committee but in the General Assembly, has to sift this out from the bottom of your hearts knowing that it’s between you and the person looking back at you in the mirror,” he said.
Kane likened lawmakers to members of a jury who must weigh whether to sentence someone to death. He said he also had to weigh the morality issue when he represented the state in its case against Michael Ross, the last person executed in Connecticut.
“I represented the state right until the time he took his last breath,” he said. “… I made the decision under the law. It was the appropriate thing to do. Someday I’ll be judged by that.”