Kenneth Ireland — the wrongly accused man who served 21 years in prison before being exonerated for the brutal rape and murder of a woman — could have been charged with the death penalty back in 1988, but he wasn’t.
Ireland believes he was spared the death penalty because of his age. He was 16 when the crime occurred. He also believes State’s Attorney Michael Dearington, who is not typically known for bringing many death penalty cases aside from the Petit murders, may have spared his life by not seeking the death penalty.
Ireland spoke in the lobby of the Legislative Office Building on Tuesday, the eve of a House vote to repeal the death penalty. The Senate passed the bill last Thursday morning on a 20-16 vote after 10 hours of debate.
Ireland said he heard the vote in the House on Wednesday may be close this year, and he hopes lawmakers will think about his story before they push the button.
Death penalty abolitionists and their lobbyists weren’t willing to say how close the vote may be, but the last time the House voted for repeal in 2009 it passed 90-56. The legislation was later vetoed by former Gov. M. Jodi Rell.
This year is different. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he would sign a prospective repeal bill that impacts any future convicts. The bill passed by the Senate last week exempts the 11 men currently on death row.
As the abolition movement gained momentum this year, opponents of repeal like Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, started thinking about ways to amend the legislation to make sure those serving life in prison without parole were treated to the worst conditions.
“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,” Kissel said during the public hearing on the bill in March.
Ireland was bounced around from prison to prison, including a five-year stint in Virginia when former Gov. John G. Rowland shipped prisoners out of state to address overcrowding.
“Prison, any part of prison, even the best possible parts of prison are just horrible, horrific places to be,” Ireland said. “There’s never a moment of peace. There’s never a moment of calm. You never get any relaxation.”
Ireland said he spent about a year in segregation in a cell that was nearest to death row.
At the time, there were only two other men on death row aside from serial killer Michael Ross, who ended his appeals and was executed in 2005.
Ireland said he had a job cleaning the floor on death row.
“There’s no doubt in my mind why Michael Ross chose to check out,” Ireland said. “It’s a terrible, terrible living condition.”
Ireland said he doesn’t have an opinion on the amendment which would keep those convicted of capital murder in conditions mirroring death row.
Sen. President Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said Tuesday that the amendment came about after he and Sens. Martin Looney, Carlo Leone, Joseph Crisco, and Edith Prague toured both Northern Correctional Institution and MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, where many of those serving life sentences are housed.
At Northern, which received its first inmate in 1995, everything is low to the ground and the entire place is gray, Williams said. “It gives off a sense of foreboding.”
Things are different at MacDougall-Walker, which was built before Northern in 1993.
Williams said MacDougall-Walker is not excessively punitive and prisoners are in their cells 17 to 20 hours a day. But when the lawmakers arrived, Williams said, they went to a pod where 60 to 80 prisoners were milling about in the center area recreating.
“The impression we got touring MacDougall was there were noticeable recreation areas,” Williams said.
And while Correction officials say recreation and television are important to maintaining discipline, lawmakers were interested in “another level of life in prison without release,” Williams said.
Williams said he hoped the amendment would convince members of the House who may be on the fence regarding their vote Wednesday.
Some have expressed concern in private that the legislationmay not be constitutional even though Democratic senators defended it.
Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, said that since the amendment was not in the bill when it was passed out of the Judiciary Committee, he hasn’t had time to study it and say with confidence that it’s constitutional.
He said he was going to be looking at the language Tuesday night to make a determination. Given that Judiciary Committee Co-Chairman Sen. Eric Coleman believes it passes constitutional muster, Holder-Winfield said he anticipated that he would likely come to the same conclusion.
Holder-Winfield has criticized similar proposals, arguing that there are already people in the general inmate population who have committed similar crimes but weren’t sentenced to death, and yet no lawmaker has ever moved to create special confinement circumstances for those inmates.
But Holder-Winfield, the Judiciary Committee’s vice chair, has been advocating for the repeal of the death penalty for years and the change likely helped the bill through the Senate by a comfortable margin.
“It’s not the worst thing we could do,” he said.
Whether the new conditions will have a negative impact on safety within prisons will likely depend on how the inmates are treated, he said, adding that more restrictive settings don’t necessarily make inmates more prone to violence.
“But there’s a difference between being restricted and being repressed,” he said.
While it may have helped in the Senate, Holder-Winfield didn’t think the amendment would have much of an impact on the vote in the House.