The Connecticut Supreme Court declined to reverse a previous decision that found the death penalty was unconstitutional for all, including the 11 inmates left on death row after the General Assembly prospectively abolished the practice in 2012.
In its 5-2 decision Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld a previous 4-3 decision that will spare 11 men on death row from the possibility of being executed.
In January, the Chief State’s Attorney used an appeal by Russell Peeler, who was convicted on two counts of capital felony in connection with the shooting deaths of Karen Clarke and her 8-year-old son, Leroy Brown, to make the argument that the men who committed their crimes before 2012 should still be put to death.
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. In August, the court found that the 2012 law “creates an impermissible and arbitrary distinction between individuals who committed murders before and after April 25, 2012.”
Mark Rademacher, Peeler’s public defender, said in January that the state has to show the court why it was “clearly wrong” in the previous Eduardo Santiago case when it decided 4-3 to abolish the death penalty for the remaining death row inmates, including Peeler. The court declined to rehear arguments in Santiago, but allowed prosecutors to try and argue their case using Peeler.
Chief Justice Chase Rogers and Justices Richard Palmer, Dennis Eveleigh, Andrew McDonald, and Richard Robinson were the majority in Thursday’s decision in the Peeler case.
However, Rogers dissented in Santiago saying the majority’s decision to eliminate the death penalty for the remaining 11 inmates was “fundamentally flawed” and Robinson was not on the court at the time Santiago was decided, so it’s unclear where he stood on the issue.
Rogers in a separate concurrence on Peeler said she feels “bound by the doctrine of stare decisis in this case for one simple reason — my respect for the rule of law. To reverse an important constitutional issue within a period of less than one year solely because of a chance in justice on the panel that is charged with deciding the issue, in my opinion, would raise legitimate concerns by the people we serve about the court’s integrity and the rule of law in the state of Connecticut.”
She said she’s not persuaded that the principles of stare decisis, which means “to stand for things decided,” should not control the outcome of this case.
She said any other conclusion would send a message that whenever there is a hotly contested issue in the court that results in a closely divided decision, “anyone who disagrees with the decision and has standing to challenge it need only wait until a member of the original majority leaves the court to mount another assault.”
But Justices Peter Zarella and Carmen Espinosa issued their own strongly worded dissents criticizing Rogers for her reversal on the issue.
“I cannot fathom how Chief Justice Rogers and Justice Robinson believe they respect the rule of law by supporting a decision that is completely devoid of any legal basis or believe it is more important to spare this court of the purported embarrassment than to correct demonstrable constitutional error,” Zarella wrote in his dissent.
He goes onto say that “a cursory reading of Chief Justice Rogers’ dissent in Santiago reveals beyond any doubt that she strongly feels that the majority’s decision in Santiago is obviously wrong.”
Espinosa said that by framing the argument about the makeup of the court, Rogers is creating a “straw man.” She said Rogers suggested that because the panel in Santiago would have been unwilling to overrule its decision, the current panel is prevented from doing so. Espinosa disagreed.
She said during Rogers’ tenure on the court it has overruled its prior precedent at least 25 times and the panel that overruled the prior precedent differed from the panel that decided the original case.
Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said he would respect the court’s ruling and move forward to re-sentence those left on death row to life in prison without the possibility of release.
The decision was applauded by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
“Today’s decision reaffirms what the court has already said: those currently serving on death row will serve the rest of their life in prison with no possibility of ever obtaining freedom,” Malloy said.
Before the prospective ban on the death penalty, the state of Connecticut allowed an unlimited number of appeals on death penalty cases.
Malloy said the only two inmates to be executed over the last 56 years both volunteered for that punishment — Michael Ross in 2005, and Joseph Taborsky in 1960.
Others who fought years to abolish the death penalty also applauded the decision.
“We welcome today’s Connecticut Supreme Court ruling, which takes the prudent step of ending the state’s failed death penalty and the possibility of any future executions,” Sheila Denion, project director for the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, said. “Today’s ruling ensures that we can move beyond this flawed policy to the total abolition of capital punishment in our state.”