Christine Stuart photo
Rep. Gerald Fox III and Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield bring out the bill (Christine Stuart photo)

After years of unsuccessful efforts to pass similar legislation, the House of Representatives on Wednesday night sent a bill that prospectively abolishes the death penalty to a governor who is willing to sign it.

The House approved the legislation on an 86-62 vote shortly before 11 p.m. Wednesday.

The legislature passed a similar bill in 2009 but it was vetoed by former Gov. M. Jodi Rell. This year, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has promised to sign the legislation.

In a statement Wednesday evening, Malloy said he will sign the bill as soon as he receives it.

“Going forward, we will have a system that allows us to put these people away for life, in living conditions none of us would want to experience,” Malloy, a former prosecutor, said. “Let’s throw away the key and have them spend the rest of their natural lives in jail.”

The debate lasted more than nine hours in the House and centered around the constitutionality of a law that would only apply to future criminals, as well as the fate of the 11 men currently on death row.

But the brutal murder of a Cheshire family in 2007 loomed large over Wednesday’s debate. The sole survivor, Dr. William Petit, has been a vocal advocate of the death penalty. Last year, he convinced enough state senators to withdraw, at least temporarily, their support of a repeal bill so that it was never called for a vote.

This year, the repeal measure was revived and cleared the Senate on a 20-16 vote last week after a handful of senators visited two prisons. They decided they could go along with repeal as long as murderers serve their life sentences in the starkest conditions — conditions that at least one Connecticut columnist described as “isolation torture.”

Although Petit did not make an appearance at the Capitol on Wednesday, many lawmakers focused on the fate of Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, the two men sentenced to death for killing Petit’s wife, Jennifer Hawke Petit, and their two daughters, Hayley and Michaela.

“It’s no secret that what is weighing over all of us is the Petit murders,” House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero said.

Rep. Terrie Wood, R-Darien, said Petit’s wishes were one of the reasons she would be voting against the bill this year, despite supporting it in 2009.

Rep. Al Adinolfi, R-Cheshire, who lived near the Petit family at the time of the murders, recounted the gruesome details of the crime and scolded the chamber for its support of the bill.

“We in this chamber are showing sympathy for the murderers not sympathy for the victims’ families and we’re wrong,” he said. “… Shame on us.”

Although their cases weren’t mentioned as prominently as the Petit case, hundreds of family members of murder victims have called for the repeal. Several appeared at a press conference with the bill’s main proponent, Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, Wednesday morning.

Holder-Winfield attempted to make sure their voices were heard when he made his remarks on House floor Wednesday night.

“If you look up in the gallery, there are people who had very terrible things happen to family members, who come to this building asking us to repeal the death penalty,” Holder-Winfield said. “And the reality is, some of them have not had an audience.”

Christine Stuart photo
Walter Everett, whose son Scott was killed in 1987, supports abolition (Christine Stuart photo)

Walter Everett, whose son was murdered in Bridgeport in 1987, was watching the debate from the gallery. He said the death penalty doesn’t help the families of victims.

“[Murder victims] expect some kind of closure with an execution. It almost never comes and even if it does come, they say, ‘Why don’t I feel any better?’” he said.

Dawn Mancarella, whose mother was strangled to death in 1996, expressed similar feelings at the morning press conference.

“Some of us have seen the loss of their loved ones all but ignored while capital cases get months, or even years of attention,” Mancarella said. “Some of us have endured capital cases and are horrified as the death penalty ensnares them in a never ending wait for execution. In the meantime, the offender is made a celebrity.”

Like the Senate, the House voted to adopt language indicating explicitly that the bill is not meant to impact inmates already sentenced to death. However, Cafero said the passage of the bill gives them a reason to appeal their sentence. He also said making a law that applies to future criminals and not past offenders will create a question of constitutionality.

“You have a group of people who are subject to death at the hands of the state and yet you draw a line in the sand at a point in time and say, regardless of what anyone does the official policy thereafter of the state is to ban the death penalty,” Cafero said.

While New Mexico has a similar law on the books, Cafero said the constitutionality of that state’s death penalty has never been tested in court. The New Mexico Supreme Court had the option of addressing the question last year in a capital murder, but opted not to consider the case. The court likely will not address the issue until the defendant in that case is sentenced to death.

Speaking to reporters in the state Capitol press room, Cafero said Malloy’s administration misled lawmakers by implying that a New Mexico court had deemed their law constitutional.

Roy Occhiogrosso, Malloy’s senior communications adviser, said Cafero’s assertion was untrue.

“I would hope that of all the issues that get taken up in the building, Representative Cafero would not play politics with this issue. Apparently that’s hoping for a little too much,” Occhiogrosso said. “They had a chance to shoot this issue down in New Mexico and they didn’t chose to do that. I think it suggests that this has every likelihood of being upheld in court.”

Still, Cafero said it was disingenuous for death penalty opponents to say it’s alright to execute the 11 men already sentenced to death but unacceptable for future offenders.

“You can’t have it both ways,” he said.

Holder-Winfield rejected the notion that a prospective bill is in any way disingenuous. He noted that he is an abolition “purist” and would prefer that the law is repealed completely.

“But I realized something: there is nothing wrong with the being opposed to the state executing people and saying ‘If I can’t get the state to stop executing people already on death row, at least I can stop the state from executing people who might be on death row in the future,’” he said.

It’s illogical to tell a person opposed to the death penalty they should pass up the chance to stop the practice in the future because they can’t change the fate of the men already sentenced, he said.

“Being a purist is sometimes not a good thing,” Holder-Winfield said.

The House adopted an amendment passed by the Senate that would change living conditions of future offenders. It calls for people convicted of capital murder to be held in living conditions similar to those on death row currently.

Early on in the debate, Rep. John Hetherington, R-New Canaan, offered an amendment that would have reinstated the death penalty if a court struck down any part of the law or if a court commuted the sentences of the 11 men on death row.

“If the bargain crumbles in part, it must crumble in whole,” Hetherington said.

However, Judiciary Committee Co-Chairman Rep. Gerald Fox said he didn’t think that was possible. After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in 1972, many sentences were commuted, he said. Later, when states amended their statutes to reinstate capital punishment, those sentences were not reinstated.

“I don’t believe that if a sentence of death is converted to life without the possibility of release it can be converted back again,” he said.

Rep. Terry Backer, D-Stratford, said that like many lawmakers he felt torn on the issue because of the horrendous nature of some of the crimes that have landed people on death row.

“I think if I had been there myself, I would have pulled the trigger on them,” he said.

However, he said he would be voting to repeal capital punishment because there is no way to ensure that the state will never execute an innocent person.

“It’s my innate feeling that government makes mistakes,” he said, adding that mistakes cannot be corrected after someone is executed. 

NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous said the bill’s passage brings his organization one step closer to being able to take the death penalty before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This is a historic day for the state of Connecticut, the country, and the world,” Jealous said. “Tonight, Connecticut breaks with its century old tradition of executing its own citizens and joins with the rest of western civilization.”

After hearing of the vote, Jealous, who was in Albany, changed his travel plans and headed to Hartford rather than back to Washington, D.C.

Christine Stuart contributed to this report.