The state Senate is poised to raise a bill to prospectively abolish the death penalty during Wednesday’s session with the support of previously undecided Sen. Edith Prague.
The news broke Tuesday as Bishops of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut led a march on the Capitol with group of about 120 people calling for the end of capital punishment. The state Capitol complex was the last stop on a “Stations of the Cross” trip, during which the Bishops depicted the events leading up to the Romans’ execution of Jesus.
Bishop James Curry said the idea was to take the annual Holy Week prayers to the streets of Hartford and to focus on repealing the death penalty.
“We’re looking for justice for victims and victims’ families, and justice for our society. It’s truly about what we want to say we are as a society and I think the death penalty turns us to the worst we are: seeking revenge rather than just punishment,” he said.
Sources say the death penalty will come up for a vote during Wednesday’s session. The fact that lawmakers are considering raising the bill indicates they’re confident they have at least enough votes for an 18-vote tie in the sharply divided chamber. Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman has announced her intention to break a tie vote in favor of repeal.
Prague, one of the three senators who has been on the fence over the issue this year, said Tuesday she would vote for repeal if she could be assured the legislation will not provide the grounds for appeals by the 11 inmates currently on death row.
“I am fully prepared to vote for repeal with the caveat that I stand up on the floor and get documentation from the chair of the Judiciary Committee that this in no way gives judges any discretion to apply this repeal to the people who are currently on death row,” she said.
Prague said judges have a lot of discretion in their courts, so the legislation must “make it very loud and very clear that this repeal can not apply to anyone who is on death row.”
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney doubted anyone could give Prague such an assurance. Even if language is inserted into the bill stipulating the law was not intended to apply to inmates already sentenced to death, McKinney said the courts will view that as immaterial.
“That’s a decision that will be decided in the courts,” McKinney said. “No one disputes that there will be a legal challenge brought by the public defender’s office and the weight of the legal experts is to say that a prospective death penalty won’t pass constitutional muster.”
Assuming Prague does support repeal, her vote alone won’t be enough to tip the scales of the chamber far enough to reach a tie. Sen. Andrew Roraback, who has previously supported repeal, has announced his intention to vote against the bill this year unless the legislature repeals a program which gives inmates the opportunity to reduce their sentences by participating in re-entry programs.
“The early release program, the more I have learned about it, the more committed I am to not letting us repeal the death penalty unless we repeal that as well,” Roraback said Tuesday. “The fact that nobody will give these people the time of day is a really sad commentary on the institution of the legislature and the relationship of the legislature and the Judicial Branch to victims of crime.”
Besides Prague, Sens. Joseph Crisco and Carlo Leone have said they were unsure whether they would support the bill, and neither was willing to hint at which way they were leaning Tuesday.
Crisco would only say he was still studying the issue.
Crisco was among a group of lawmakers who visited the death row facilities at Northern Correctional Institution this year. He called the experience “startling” but would not say how it might impact his vote.
“It’s a serious issue,” Leone of Stamford said Tuesday. “If we are going to come in and discuss it, then I’ll probably make my comments at that time.”
Leone said his tour of Northern Correctional was an eye-opener.
“Some don’t think it’s as serious as it would be, or that it’s some kind of luxury, and I wanted to dispel any of those rumors by seeing it for myself,” Leone said. “It’s not a happy place to be. I don’t think any person who comes in would want to be in either chamber.”
The execution chamber is located at Osborn Correctional Institute, which is adjacent to Northern where the death row inmates are housed.
McKinney said he’s hoping tomorrow’s debate will convince anyone who is considering supporting the bill to abandon their support. Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said he expects a long debate.
Kissel, a supporter of the death penalty, was tight-lipped Tuesday on what amendments he intends to offer during the debate, but in the past he has expressed interest in requiring that inmates convicted capital murder be held in solitary confinement.
Kissel said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Democrats offer a similar amendment Wednesday. He said it was flattering they had embraced his idea but suggested it supports the notion that inmates currently on death row won’t be put to death if the bill passes. If the bill is truly prospective, why is there concern over the living conditions of those inmates, he asked.
McKinney said Republicans may offer another amendment that would make the death penalty more workable in the state rather than abolish it. Roraback likely will try to amend the bill to repeal the inmate early release program.
Advocates in favor of repeal, like Executive Director Ben Jones of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, said he’s on pins and needles in anticipation of this year’s vote. Last year, efforts to repeal the death penalty died when the Senate was unable to come up with the necessary votes. It passed both chambers in 2009, but was vetoed by former Gov. M. Jodi Rell.
“I will be nervous until it passes the House,” Jones said.
While Jones said he isn’t as nervous about the votes in the House, where there’s a much more comfortable margin in favor of repeal, he said he’ll sleep a little better after both chambers vote.
Christine Stuart contributed to this report