HARTFORD, Conn. — After years of failed attempts to repeal the death penalty, Connecticut lawmakers in both the House and the Senate have passed legislation that abolishes the punishment for all future cases.
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The legislation, which would make Connecticut the 17th state to abolish the death penalty, awaits a signature from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who has said he would sign the bill into law.
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“Going forward, we will have a system that allows us to put these people away for life, in living conditions none of us would want to experience,” the Democratic governor said in a statement following the vote. “Let’s throw away the key and have them spend the rest of their natural lives in jail.”
The bill would abolish the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of release.
Lawmakers were able to garner support by making the legislation affect only future crimes and not the 11 men currently on death row. Some bill opponents, however, have called the move a political tool.
“It’s tough to explain (the bill) to a four year old and it’s tough to explain to a 40-year-old or a 94-year-old because to many it is illogical and does not make sense,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk. “…We allow the death penalty to continue for at least 11 people and maybe more.”
Rep. Gerald Fox III, D-Stamford, co-chair of the General Assembly’s joint Judiciary Committee, said he was pleased to see the bill pass after working for years to repeal the death penalty.
Repeal bill champion Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, said although he was pleased with the results of the vote, more needs to be done to fix the state’s criminal justice system.
“It’s just one step in a long movement towards fixing our system and making sure we have safety and equality in our system,” he said.
Preserving the death sentence of those still on death row is fairly unusual, although a similar law took effect in New Mexico. The governor there declined to commute the sentences of the state’s two death row inmates after the repeal was signed in 2009.
Connecticut has a history of making changes to the death penalty prospective, said Fox. He said in 1846, the state created distinctions between first- and second-degree murders. Prior to that change, all murders were punishable by death.
In 1951, a law was passed allowing a jury to determine whether to impose death or life in prison for a first-degree murder. That law, Fox said, was ultimately upheld by the State Supreme Court.
“There is a history behind this. It has happened before in terms of the prospective nature of our death penalty,” Fox said. “…I understand these cases are heavily litigated and every avenue is always explored to its fullest, but that is where our law stands now.”
Both advocates and opponents of the repeal bill predicted the repeal would ultimately become law.
Last week the state Senate voted in favor of the bill after nearly 11 hours of debate.
Before the vote, Democratic Senators amended the bill to require that individuals convicted under the new legislation would be subject to prison conditions similar to those of death row inmates.
The House voted in favor of the Senate amendment.
Many officials insisted on that as a condition of their support for repeal in a state where two men were sentenced to death for a gruesome 2007 home invasion in Cheshire.
Despite passing the two Senate amendments, House members voted down a total of 11 amendments, including a measure proposed by the Waterbury delegation that would preserve the death penalty for individuals convicted of killing a police officer.
The amendment came in response to the 1992 murder of Waterbury Police Officer Walter T. Williams III. His killer, Richard Reynolds, currently sits on death row.
Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, and Rep. Jeffrey Berger, D-Waterbury, who was a Waterbury police officer when Williams was shot in the line of duty, broke party lines to vote in support of the amendment and against the death penalty repeal bill.
During the debate Berger said he believes the death penalty is an important tool for prosecutors in murder cases and as a way of deterring crime.
Death penalty legislation never made it to the Senate floor for a vote last year after some senators voiced concern about acting when the second of two suspects in that case was still facing trial.
In the past five years, four other states have abolished the death penalty – New Mexico, Illinois, New Jersey and New York. Repeal proposals are also pending in several other states including Kansas and Kentucky, while advocates in California have gathered enough signatures for an initiative to throw out the death penalty that is expected to go before voters in November.
Connecticut has carried out only one execution in 51 years, when serial killer Michael Ross was administered lethal injection in 2005 after giving up his appeal rights.