Lawyers for at least eight of the 10 men sentenced to death in Connecticut argued Tuesday that the state’s repeal of the death penalty was pertinent to their lawsuit alleging that capital punishment is too arbitrary to be constitutional.
The lawsuit rests upon the claim that Connecticut’s death sentence is imposed arbitrarily, with racial and geographic factors making certain offenders more likely to be sentenced to death.
In Rockville Superior Court on Tuesday morning, a team of lawyers argued that Judge Samuel Sferrazza should allow them to amend their complaint to account for the legislature’s repeal of the death penalty for future offenders.
Attorney David Golub said the prospective nature of the new law made the death sentence even more arbitrary because it allows some offenders to be executed while precluding other offenders guilty of similar crimes simply because of the date the crimes were committed.
“If I commit a crime on Monday I get the death penalty. If I commit the same crime on Tuesday I do not,” Golub said. “… It doesn’t make sense.”
However, lawyers from the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office asked the judge to deny the request to change the lawsuit. Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Proto said that rendering illegal the death sentences of the inmates already set to be executed was not lawmakers’ intent when they passed the bill back in April.
Proto said that the legislative enactment was not within the parameters of what the court was tasked with addressing. He said amending the complaint would also add more delays in a case where delay already is inevitable.
“In terms of litigation, this is a Mack truck, not a Maserati — it doesn’t stop on a dime,” he said.
Golub said he and the other lawyers representing the inmates were surprised the state was objecting to the amendment. He said the alternative is that his client, Sedrick Cobb, and every other death row inmate will file a new, separate petition tomorrow to reflect the repeal.
“How does that make sense?” he asked.
Sferrazza will have to rule on whether the lawsuit can be amended sometime before the case heads to trial in September. The state plans to conduct the trial at Northern Correctional Institution where the inmates are housed. It will be broadcast live at the Rockville courthouse for the public.
The fate of the men already sentenced to death was a prominent concern as the new law was being debated in the legislature. Some supporters like Democrat Sen. Edith Prague only voted for the bill on the explicit assurance it would not impact the executions of those already sentenced.
“I am fully prepared to vote for repeal with the caveat that I stand up on the floor and get documentation from the chair of the Judiciary Committee that this in no way gives judges any discretion to apply this repeal to the people who are currently on death row,” Prague said back in April.
When it came time to vote, Prague got that assurance. But opponents maintained the prospective nature of the law wouldn’t pass constitutional muster and the end result would be courts scrapping the executions of the 10 men currently sentenced to death.
“That’s a decision that will be decided in the courts,” Senate Republican leader John McKinney said. “No one disputes that there will be a legal challenge brought by the public defender’s office and the weight of the legal experts is to say that a prospective death penalty won’t pass constitutional muster.”
It will be some time before that is decided. Golub said lawyers for the inmates hope to get the issue before the state Supreme Court as soon as possible.
“Ultimately, we all know it’s going to be decided by the Connecticut Supreme Court,” he told the judge Tuesday.