As the state Senate prepared for a vote on the prospective repeal of the death penalty Wednesday, Democratic leaders announced their intention to amend the bill to keep inmates convicted of capital murder in conditions mirroring death row.
The amendment is similar to one proposed last week by Sen. John Kissel, R- Enfield, when the bill was voted out of the Judiciary Committee. Kissel’s amendment called for solitary confinement for the inmates who would have otherwise gone to death row.
Though that amendment was voted down, the committee’s co-chairs said they were open to considering the concept. Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Hartford, said Wednesday’s amendment avoids some of the constitutional concerns raised over Kissel’s proposal.
Correction Department Commissioner Leo Arnone said that if it is adopted and passed, the amendment would create a program very similar to how death row is currently operated.
Under the amendment, inmates convicted of capital felony would be housed in units separate from other inmates and be continuously escorted or monitored when they are moved.
Inmates in the program would only be allowed out of their cells for two hours a day, would only be allowed non-contact visiting rights, and would never be allowed on work assignments outside their housing unit. They would also be subject to cell searches at least twice a week and would be required to change cells every 90 days.
“These conditions might be regarded as harsher than death row, because they will be moved from one cell to another every 90 days, which is disruptive,” Sen. President Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said.
Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said the amendment recognizes that people convicted of capital murder should be treated differently in the prison system and is a just substitute for the death penalty.
Williams said he expects the bill to pass the Senate with at least 19 votes, meaning Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman would not be required to break a tie. He said the amendment was a key factor in getting the votes needed from lawmakers who might not otherwise felt comfortable repealing the death penalty.
Not everyone feels the amendment is necessary, however. In a statement, ACLU of Connecticut Executive Director Andrew Schneider said it does not serve a purpose.
“It’s vitally important that the death penalty be repealed in Connecticut, and the ACLU of Connecticut has been working toward this end for decades. This amendment, however, is unnecessary,” he said. “The Department of Correction already has the tools to effectively and safely manage the prison population, including the ability to place prisoners in administrative segregation.”
However, Arnone said the amendment gives the department flexibility because it allows him to set up programs like death row in facilities besides Northern Correctional Institution. Because of that flexibility, he said he was confident the new programs will be revenue neutral.
“My best guess, as someone who’s done this business for 38 years, is we can make this happen without having it cost the state of Connecticut any more than any other inmate we’re holding,” he said.
Republican lawmakers held a press conference Wednesday morning with the families of victims to talk about why they believe the death penalty can’t be repealed prospectively and why trotting out this amendment won’t get them to flip their votes.
“I suspect it’s being used as a political tool to help flip some votes,” Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield said. He said if he was able to have a reasonable, fair, factual discussion with Sen. Edith Prague outside the chamber he’s certain he could convince her not to vote for repeal.
Kissel said the fact that Democrats have proposed a bill similar to his doesn’t change his view on the death penalty.
“This notion of prospective repeal is political expediency and you know what I’m with them—be honest,” Kissel said. “But don’t misguide victims’ families and loved ones.”
Anne Rossi, the widow of Barry Rossi, who was killed in a murder-for-hire at an auto repair shop in Windsor Locks, said if the death penalty didn’t exist the man who hired Jose Guzman to kill her husband’s friend would be a free man.
She said the current process is broken and it feels like the legislature is rushing into eliminating the death penalty without first trying to fix it.
“The pain is always going to be there for us,” Rossi said. “I hold no merit on abolishing this law for the sake of saving me more pain.”
She said she would have happily sat through more jury trials and sentencing procedures if it meant her husband would receive justice.
“It’s about the people who were murdered, and the people who murdered them,” Rossi said.
Linda Binnenkade, Rossi’s sister, said they offered an amendment last year to the legislature which would have switched the penalty of death to life on death row. She said it’s possible if the state eliminates the death penalty prospectively, those currently on death row will make it into the prison’s general population.
“Life in prison, they’re gonna pass laws, and they’re gonna get out,” Binnenkade said. “Life on death row — you would not get out.”
Dr. William A. Petit Jr., whose wife and daughters were murdered in their Cheshire home in 2007, said he believes in the death penalty.
“We believe in the death penalty because we believe it is really the only true just punishment for certain heinous and depraved murders,” Petit said.
Petit said he’s going to try and get an audience with senators, like Prague, who may still be on the fence about the issue.
“I think senators who are thinking about flipping their votes, I think they’re being led astray. I think prospective appeal of the death penalty is false. There will be multiple appeals for people who are already on death row,” Petit said.
Johanna Petit Chapman said bluntly that a prospective death penalty is “absolutely a lie.”
“If the abolitionists want to do away with the death penalty in Connecticut, at least be honest about it,” Petit Chapman said.
However, Williams said he didn’t believe the passage of the bill would affect the 11 inmates currently on death row. He said Connecticut can look to New Mexico for evidence that prospectively repealing the death penalty won’t allow inmates on death row to successfully appeal their sentences.
“In New Mexico when that particular appeal was filed the New Mexico Supreme Court decided decisively that there is nothing unconstitutional about a prospective death penalty,” he said.
Coleman said Connecticut’s courts have a history of upholding the legislative intent of the laws. In 1846, the legislature passed a prospective law creating different degrees for murder cases and the courts upheld the decision, he said.
The state Supreme Court also upheld the prospective nature of modifications lawmakers made to the death penalty statute in 1951, he said.