Connecticut became the 17th American state to abolish the death penalty this week after a contentious and often heart-wrenching debate. Though there was an outcome, it hardly seemed like a resolution to an issue with no easy answers.
The Catholics who make up one in three Connecticut residents find themselves in line with their Church’s view of the issue. The Executive Director of the Connecticut Catholic Public Affairs Conference, Michael Culhane, described the Church’s official reaction this way: “The Catholic conference of Connecticut is thrilled with the passage of the repeal of the death penalty.” The Church’s position has the moral clarity and consistency that accompanies being unequivocally pro-life: no abortion, no death penalty.
At the same time, though, it is hard not to be moved by the stories of the murdered. Former reporter Shelly Sindland posted a moving account of her experience with the death penalty with a blog post titled, “My up close and personal experience with the Death Penalty.” Sindland describes watching Michael Ross die by lethal injection and how it impacted her:
Not many people can say they’ve watched an execution but I have. Watching the life drain out a serial killer’s face was creepy, no doubt, but it does not haunt me. Hearing how Ross killed 14-year-old Leslie Shelley along with her best friend April Brunais and how each friend begged to spare the other one’s life, that is what haunts me.”
Dr. William Petit, the lone survivor of the murderous attacks in Cheshire that killed his wife and two daughters, lobbied consistently against abolishing the death penalty — the sentence imposed on the two men convicted of killing his family. After a repeal bill passed the House in 2011, only Dr. Petit’s intervention prevented its passage in the Senate last year. This year, senators were kept away from him until after the votes were cast.
Petit’s story remains hauntingly vivid in the public eye. The morning after the governor signed the repeal bill, a disc jockey at a Hartford-area rock radio station who rarely strays into anything remotely political commented, saying “they should have forced the governor to sit with Dr. Petit and look him in the eye while he signed it. That will make your hand shake.”
On the other hand, it is appropriate that Dr. Petit and other family members of victims are prominent in this debate because, as Colin McEnroe noted last year, “That’s what abolishing the death penalty means. It means that people we regard as monsters will not be executed.” It is true: people who were sentenced to the worst possible punishment for truly abhorrent crimes will not receive it.
Public polling on the issue has been unequivocal in opposition to repeal, with Quinnipiac finding 62 percent of the population in favor of retaining the death penalty just this week. This overwhelming public sentiment for the death penalty contrasts sharply with the votes cast by the General Assembly.
There have always been two competing views of what an elected official should be — a small “d” democratic expression of the sentiment of the people or a small “r” republican, someone empowered to make decisions on behalf of the people. Those voting for repeal may have thought about these two models extensively this week as they cast a vote out of sync with two-thirds of their constituents. This does not make their vote wrong, but it does make it tough to return to your district and pound your chest about being the “voice of the people.” Or at least it should.
The search for answers to the dilemma that is the death penalty will go on, but no one will wait on death row for the answer.
Heath W. Fahle is the Policy Director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy and a former Executive Director of the Connecticut Republican Party. Contact Heath about this article by visiting www.heathwfahle.com