Emily Todd and Jennifer Lawlor. (Contributed photo)

Jennifer Lawlor lost her 25-year-old daughter Emily Todd on Dec. 8, 2018 when she was brutally shot and left for dead on a lonely patch of Bridgeport waterfront.

Police charged a man she had been dating for about two weeks with the murder.

Despite the harrowing circumstances – Todd was shot in the back of the head – there is no guarantee that her alleged killer will receive a life sentence after trial because her death doesn’t fall under the state’s “special circumstances” law, which carries a penalty of life in prison with no possibility of parole for certain murders.

Lawlor and Michele Voigt, co-founders of Violent Crime Survivors are proposing legislation that would amend state laws to make domestic and family violence homicide convictions punishable by the same sentence as those who kill police officers, correction officers, children 16 and under, and several other victims of homicide.

“We need to elevate domestic violence for not only those who are in crisis, but for those who didn’t make it out alive,” Lawlor said. “I’m not asking for anything extreme, I’m not asking to repeal the death penalty, I’m asking that domestic and family violence homicides be added to the list of special circumstances. There should be a very harsh consequence for this crime across the board, no matter what courthouse you are in.”

Rep. Raghib Allie-Brennan, D-Bethel, and Rep. Stephen Hardy, R-Brookfield, have submitted the bill to the Judiciary Committee for review. Since it’s a short session, the committee must agree to take up the proposed legislation otherwise it won’t move forward.

Judiciary Committee Co-Chair Gary Winfield said he’s willing to listen to the bill’s supporters but stopped short of saying that it would be on the committee’s legislative agenda this session.

“I am going to keep an open mind and listen,” Winfield said. “Ever since the law was created I’ve had an issue with the special groups we put into the law. I think I understand where they are coming from. But every time there is a murder there is a family who is affected and have to go through all of that trauma. How do we differentiate between any type of murder? Why is one murder different? You don’t fix that by making more people special.”

Winfield said the committee is still in talks about what will advance to a public hearing. “I can’t say right now, we’re going to have a discussion about the next set of bills,” he said. “I understand that domestic violence is a very serious thing, it’s the reason why we are always doing policy on it.”

For Lawlor it’s become a mission to help prevent others from suffering the same trauma she has with the loss of her daughter. For the past few years, she’s testified for and against bills that would change the criminal justice landscape in the state. 

Lawlor and Voigt formed Violent Crime Survivors in 2021 Violent Crime Survivors (vcsurvivors.org) as a way of supporting others in the same position. Their reason for proposing the bill is simple, they said. “I believe it’s time that Connecticut placed the same value on the loss of life to intimate partner violence as we do to other subsets of the population,” Voigt said.

On average Connecticut has 14 family or domestic violence murders a year. The victims are predominantly women who were killed by an intimate partner.

From 2000 to 2021 defendants who sought a plea agreement averaged a 30-year sentence for a domestic violence death, according to sentencing data compiled by Voigt. Those who were convicted after a jury trial received on average a 48-year prison sentence, Voigt said. More than 50% of the cases were resolved with a plea agreement on charges ranging from reckless endangerment to murder, she concluded.

The penalty for murder in Connecticut can run from 25 to 60 years, which is considered a life sentence.

Since Todd was over the age of 16 and not in a job that qualifies to be considered as a “special circumstance” it will depend on the jury and the judge as to what sentence her alleged killer will receive.

The man charged with her murder, Brandon Roberts, suggested a 45-year sentence during plea agreement discussions, but it was turned down by a judge, Lawlor said.

The case has languished on the trial list during the pandemic. She has no court date for the trial as yet. Lawlor is seeking to make the law retroactive, which would encompass the man who is accused of murdering her daughter.

“It’s about the protection of women in the state of Connecticut,” Lawlor said. “This would say, if you do that, this will be your consequence. If it were under special circumstances, there would be no discussion. It would be a very consistent way to handle domestic violence.”