There was no public bill signing and very little fanfare this year after a bill prospectively abolishing the death penalty was signed into law.
Getting such a large and some would argue important issue raised during a short session of the General Assembly is a Herculean task, but it’s even tougher when at least three Senators are still on the fence days before the vote.
So how did they do it?
Sen. Eric Coleman of Bloomfield and Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield of New Haven recounted the twists and turns leading up to this years vote at a “Drinking Liberally” gathering Tuesday in Windsor.
Coleman said there were some who were hesitant to raise the bill this year, but Holder-Winfield—as he was in 2009 when he got it passed only to see it vetoed by then Gov. M. Jodi Rell—was persistent.
“Believe it or not as long as the death penalty was an issue there were still people who professed to be on the fence about the issue,“ Coleman said.
Those fence-sitters caused Coleman to receive daily questions from his leadership about where certain Senators stood. He said leadership didn’t want to have Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman have to break a tie vote, even though she was prepared to do it if it came to that.
“We wanted it to be a Democratic initiative and the Democratic majority being responsible for the passage of the repeal bill,” Coleman said.
Coleman credited the 180 victims families who spoke out in favor of repeal. He also credited a visit to Connecticut’s death row arranged by Sen. President Donald Williams for the three Senators who were still on the fence.
He said he’s not sure why Senators Edith Prague, Joe Crisco, and Carlo Leone wanted to visit death row, but the visit ended up being a “double-edged sword” because on the very same trip they also visited MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institute where they saw inmates serving life sentences, mostly for murder convictions “moving freely” in certain areas.
“They found death row to be of sufficient oppressive conditions,” Coleman said. “And they were satisfied that death row was a cruel place and punishment there was severe.”
But when the Senators went to MacDougall-Walker in Suffield people convicted of heinous crimes were mixed in with “general population” and they felt something needed to be done, Coleman said. That’s how the provision which requires those convicted of “murder with special circumstances” to receive the same treatment as prisoners on death row.
That provision, “contributed to the support of the bill in the Senate,” Coleman said. “It was one of the contributing factors that allowed them to support the bill.”
Holder-Winfield didn’t like the amendment to the legislation, but he wasn’t going to let it stop him from supporting it.
Windsor’s Deputy Mayor Al Simon was somewhat surprised to learn Democratic leadership got involved in convincing lawmakers to vote in favor of repeal, since he assumed it would be a vote of conscience.
In the end the last group of Senators to support the bill didn’t need to have their “arm twisted” but Coleman said there was a “considerable amount of time taken to discuss the issue and the importance of the public policy and the importance of Democrats acting together on this issue.”
He said there was a lot of catering done to the small group of Senators prior to the vote on the morning of April 5.
While he can live with it, Holder-Winfield said he didn’t like the bill because he wanted complete abolition. Then the Senate threw in harsher living conditions for convicted murderers and “I really didn’t like it,” he said.
He said it’s just an admission by lawmakers, who make laws governing the prisons, that they have no idea what actually happens in the prisons. He said it should have made them stop and think “maybe I don’t know everything I think I know.”
Another difference between this year and previous years, like in 2011 when the death penalty wasn’t even raised, was the inability of Dr. William A. Petit, the lone survivor of a triple homicide in 2007, to speak with Senators who were on the fence.
“For a longtime Dr. Petit had a lot of cache,” Holder-Winfield said. “We were arguing we were right but no one was listening.“ This year, the voices of the 180 families grew louder and the fact that they were there telling their stories to lawmakers this year made a difference, he said.
Asked if he would be the one to propose legislation completely abolishing the death penalty, Holder-Winfield, said he wouldn’t be the lawmaker putting it forward. However, if someone else were to propose it he would likely push the “green button” in favor of it.
Hilary Carpenter, president of Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, which up until 2009 was an all volunteer organization, said the fight will continue as long as there are people on death row.
“We did not abolish the death penalty. We still have a death penalty,“ Carpenter said in her opening remarks to the group. “There are still 11 men on death row that could be executed. So our work is not done. We still have a goal of abolishing the death penalty in Connecticut.”
The 11 men, who still have plenty of appeals before they get to the death chamber, will remain on death row unless the legislature seeks to abolish the death penalty completely or their capital punishment is appealed through the courts.