After lengthy debate, Senate OKs repeal of state death penalty
HARTFORD -- The state Senate early Thursday approved a bill that would abolish the death penalty and put the state's worst future murderers in prison for life without the possibility of release.
The bill, which passed 20-16 after more than 10 hours debate and seven failed Republican amendments, was drafted by Democratic majority leaders to assure that it would not apply to the 11 men awaiting execution.
But in the debate's seventh hour, the majority approved a Republican amendment that would strengthen the intent to keep the current death row inmates on track for execution.
"Clearly, at worst, this amendment is a belt and suspenders," said Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, who voted against the repeal. "It may add nothing to the underlying bill, but certainly takes nothing away."
Those sentenced under the "special circumstances" law in the future would live in segregated, secure conditions away from the general prison population, similar to the current death row in the Northern Correctional Institution in Somers.
Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, cited a 2007 study of more than 4,600 murders in Connecticut dating back 34 years that showed that only nine killers had been sentenced to death.
"Every single one of those 4,600 murders was a tragedy that terribly hurt the families and friends of the person whose life was taken," Williams said. "The death penalty is a distraction. It is discriminatory."
Sen. Edwin A. Gomes, D-Bridgeport, said he knows about 20 families affected by murder. "A lot of their children got caught up in the drug wars, and they ended up being people you wouldn't want to associate with," Gomes said.
"The death penalty is permanent and when there are mistakes made there is no way to bring someone back to life," Gomes said.
"It plagues me to think we could put an innocent person to death," Slossberg said as the debate reached its ninth hour. "By eliminating the death penalty, we're not letting any innocent person go free. We will have a very severe punishment."
Republicans warned that the repeal would result in immediate appeals from the condemned inmates attempting to have their sentences modified in state courts.
"We know -- and this is not a fact in dispute -- that if the repeal of our death penalty becomes law and when it becomes law there will be an appeal filed on behalf of at least one or, as a group, all death row inmates, challenging their execution under our state Constitution now that we've repealed it," McKinney said. "What I think we can also agree upon is that none of us can predict with any accuracy what the court is going to do."
Last year, the legislation failed in the Senate, amid lobbying by Dr. William Petit, of Cheshire, whose wife and two daughters were killed in a 2007 home invasion. Their two killers are now on death row.
While Petit again journeyed to the Capitol on Wednesday, Democrats who last year were opposed to the repeal, changed their votes in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats 22-14.
The follow-up vote in the House, where Democrats have a 99-52 majority, is expected to be easier when the bill reaches the floor next week for debate.
Malloy has said he would sign the legislation, making Connecticut the 17th state, plus the District of Columbia, to repeal capital punishment. In 2009, the last time the repeal passed the House and Senate, it was vetoed by then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell.
After a preliminary vote on the underlying legislation marked the second hour of debate, McKinney immediately moved for the legislation to be referred to the Finance Committee, which would at least temporarily sidetrack the bill.
Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, who presides over the Senate, overruled the request. Wyman last week promised to support the repeal if a tie vote occurred in the Senate.
It was early drama in an evening-long conversation on the controversial repeal. Twenty Republican amendments were filed in an attempt to lure away Democratic support from the underlying bill.
Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, whose district includes six prison facilities, offered the first GOP amendment, which would assure that future "special circumstances" inmates stay segregated in conditions sparser than those in the Democratic legislation.
Sen. Michael A. McLachlan, R-Danbury, supported Kissel's proposal.
"This is unfortunately one of those cases where I'm afraid that the underlying bill is going to pass," McLachlan said. "We need to find a way to make a bad bill better."
"I like my amendment just fine," replied Sen. Eric D. Coleman, D-Bloomfield, just before the vote on the first Republican amendment, which failed 21-14. A second amendment was immediately offered to codify that those on death row must be denied appeals.
Earlier in the day, Democrats in the Senate revised the bill to attract more votes for repeal. Republicans and several supporters of capital punishment charged that the fate of the 11 killers on death row was at stake.
Proponents of the repeal, however, stressed that the legislation is "prospective" for future capital felonies and would not spare the condemned inmates.
Indeed, it was the only way that Prague, who opposed the bill last year, would support the legislation this year.
During a mid-morning news conference, majority Democrats announced a "game-changing" rewrite of the death penalty repeal bill that would assure those on death row -- and those future murderers convicted under so-called special circumstances -- would stay segregated from other inmates for as long as they live.
They would be kept in conditions similar to today's death row, where those facing eventual execution are escorted everywhere, housed away from the general population and confined to their cells for 22 hours a day.
Democrats led by Williams and Coleman, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the new bill took into consideration a proposal from Kissel, the Judiciary Committee's ranking member, that failed during the committee debate on the legislation.
When informed of this in a GOP news conference that immediately followed, Kissel said he still favors the death penalty.
"It's great when the opposition party wants to take one of our ideas and take it to heart, but it doesn't change my position on the death penalty," Kissel said.
"Our concern was that these diabolical individuals should not be in the general population. What I think is the real problem here, and I'll be succinct, is this notion of prospective repeal. It's political expediency," Kissel said. "Be honest. If you're going to take the high and mighty road and say this is a moral issue, then let's be honest, get your votes together and do an outright repeal. But don't misguide the victims' families and loved ones, don't misguide the people of Connecticut and say it's prospective because that is a ruse and that is disingenuous to the good people of the state of Connecticut."
Petit, an endocrinologist who was beaten but survived the 2007 triple murder and who has emerged in recent years as the state's major supporter of capital punishment, told reporters that he believes Democrats have been keeping him away from swing votes, including Prague.
"The senators in question have not been readily available," Petit said.
Coleman said that laws in Connecticut dating back to 1846 have applied prospectively, so he is sure that those on death row would still face eventual execution.
"I don't see how we make the point that killing is wrong, by killing," Coleman said during the evening debate.
Leo C. Arnone, commissioner of the Department of Correction, said the bill would allow him to set up the new segregated program at other prisons and save money for the state while mirroring death row's conditions.
Appeals on death-penalty cases routinely take 20 to 30 years. Serial killer Michael Ross abandoned his appeals in 2005 and received a lethal injection. Prior to that, the last execution was in 1960.
The Cheshire home invasion slayings were viewed as creating a hostile environment for repealing the law. Last month, a Quinnipiac University poll showed 62 percent of Connecticut residents do not support repealing the death penalty.