Connecticut’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the death penalty “no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose,” violates the state constitution, and should be abolished for the 11 men who remain on death row.
“Upon careful consideration of the defendant’s claims in light of the governing constitutional principles and Connecticut’s unique historical and legal landscape, we are persuaded that, following its prospective abolition, this state’s death penalty no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose,” Justice Richard Palmer wrote in the majority decision.
It was a 4-3 decision. Chief Justice Chase Rogers, Justice Peter Zarella, and Justice Carmen Espinosa wrote separate dissenting opinions, while Justices Flemming Norcott, Dennis Eveleigh, and Andrew McDonald joined Palmer in the majority decision.
The General Assembly prospectively abolished the death penalty in 2012, barring the execution of those convicted of capital offenses after April 25, 2012. At that time there were 11 men on death row and one of them, Eduardo Santiago, claimed “imposition of the death penalty would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”
Santiago’s appeal of his death sentence in the killing of Joseph Niwinski in December 2000 was pending when the legislature passed the law prospectively repealing the death penalty.
The legislature’s debate in 2012 focused on whether it would be constitutional to prospectively repeal the death penalty. Also weighing heavily on their minds was the brutal 2007 murder of a Cheshire family and the fate of the two convicted murderers, Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, who are two of the 11 men on death row.
Lawmakers who voted against abolishing the death penalty said it created two classes of people and created a constitutional conflict.
“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,” then-House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero said during a nine hour debate.
That’s where the court stepped in.
In its ruling Thursday, the court found that the 2012 law “creates an impermissible and arbitrary distinction between individuals who committed murders before and after April 25, 2012.”
The state has not put anyone to death since the execution of Michael Ross in 2005. At the time it was the first execution the state had done in 45 years.
“In prospectively abolishing the death penalty, the legislature did not simply express the will of the people that it no longer makes sense to maintain the costly and unsatisfying charade of a capital punishment scheme on which no one ever receives the ultimate punishment,” Palmer wrote.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said that in the last 54 years Connecticut has only executed two inmates, “both of whom volunteered for the execution.” A proponent of abolishing the death penalty, Malloy said death row inmates are able to take advantage of “endless appeals that cost the taxpayers millions of dollars, and give those convicted killers an undeserved platform for public attention.”
While the decision is a victory for those who support repeal, Malloy said it’s also “a somber day where our focus should not be on the 11 men sitting on death row, but with their victims and those surviving families members. My thoughts and prayers are with them during what must be a difficult day.”
Senate Republican leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, offered a different view of Thursday’s opinion.
“Today Connecticut’s Supreme Court stepped way out of line and wrongfully took on the role of policymakers,” Fasano said. “Their ruling deliberately circumvented the will of the people and the legislators who represent each and every Connecticut resident.”
He said if the court disagreed with the death penalty repeal legislation and found it created two separate classes of citizens then it should have struck it down, an argument Espinosa makes in her dissent.
“Instead, the activist court chose to act as policymaker and expand the repeal beyond what was approved by state lawmakers,” Fasano said. “This court has overstepped its constitutional obligations and allowed personal interpretations of what some may think are just and fair to overshadow the law as defined and enacted by the people.”
Espinosa concluded in her dissent that the legislature could reenact the death penalty.
“Because the majority opinion has grounded its decision on the conclusion, albeit incorrect, that the death penalty no longer comports with evolving standards of decency, the legislature has the power to reenact the death penalty,” Espinosa wrote. “As the majority recognizes, there is nothing that requires that the standards of decency evolve only in one direction.”
Writing for the majority, Palmer noted that “if the citizens wish to reinstate the death penalty, they may always amend the state constitution, as the citizens of California and Massachusetts did, to clarify that the punishment is and will remain constitutional notwithstanding any evolution in the state’s standards of decency.”
Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said the constitutional issued raised in the majority decision “decision means that only a constitutional amendment can change today’s decision.”
U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, who believes she lost her seat in the House of Representatives in the 2010 election because of her opposition to the death penalty, commended the court for its decision.
“I believe the harshest penalty is life imprisonment with no possibility of parole,” Esty said. “We are a better country than to allow for a penalty that is imperfectly applied, yet decisively final, a penalty that we know has been handed down against innocent people, disproportionately sought against African Americans at home, and brutally employed by regimes abroad who do not share our values as Americans.”