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Connecticut Legislature Votes to Repeal Death Penalty

Hartford, Connecticut – After more than nine hours of debate, the Connecticut House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to repeal the state’s death penalty, following a similar vote in the State Senate last week. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, has said he will sign the bill, which would make Connecticut the 17th state — … Continued

Hartford, Connecticut – After more than nine hours of debate, the Connecticut House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to repeal the state’s death penalty, following a similar vote in the State Senate last week. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, has said he will sign the bill, which would make Connecticut the 17th state — the 5th in five years — to abolish capital punishment for future cases.

Mr. Malloy’s signature will leave New Hampshire and Pennsylvania as the only states in the Northeast that still have the death penalty. New Jersey repealed it in 2007. New York’s statute was ruled unconstitutional by the state’s highest court in 2004, and lawmakers have not moved to fix the law.

The vote, after more than two decades of debate and the 2009 veto of a similar bill by the governor at the time, M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, came against the backdrop of one of the state’s most horrific crimes: a 2007 home invasion in Cheshire in which Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, were held hostage and murdered, two of the three raped, and their house set afire by two habitual criminals who are now on death row. Ms. Hawke-Petit’s husband, Dr. William A. Petit Jr., who was badly beaten but escaped, has since been an ardent advocate for keeping the death penalty.

The bill exempts the 11 men currently on death row, including Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven J. Hayes, the men convicted of the Petit murders.

The measure was approved by a vote of 86 to 62, largely along party lines.

The legislation will make life in prison without possibility of parole the state’s harshest punishment. It mandates that those given life without parole be incarcerated separately from other inmates and be limited to two hours a day outside the prison cell.

In a statement released late Wednesday night, Governor Malloy said the repeal put Connecticut in the same position as nearly every other industrialized nation on the death penalty.

“For decades, we have not had a workable death penalty,” he said, noting that only one person has been executed in Connecticut in the last 52 years. “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. Let’s throw away the key and have them spend the rest of their natural lives in jail.”

Thirteen proposed amendments from supporters of capital punishment, most of which would have allowed the death penalty in certain cases, were defeated during the debate, in which many legislators told personal stories of the effects of violent crime. The lawmakers also invoked a wide variety of people, from mass murderers to Immanuel Kant to Sir Thomas More.

State Representative Patricia M. Widlitz, a Democrat from Branford and Guilford, said that like many members, she was torn over her vote. But she recalled a murder in her community and the difficulty residents went through in explaining it to local children. “I just couldn’t reconcile telling them that it’s O.K. for the government to kill after teaching them that killing is wrong, it’s unacceptable, it’s immoral,” she said.

She added that the killer was sentenced to life without parole. “I think in many ways, that is a death sentence, with no chance of parole, no chance of doing anything with your life,” she said.

Republican critics of the bill said the exemption for those currently awaiting execution cast a cloud over the vote, both because it undercut the moral argument of death penalty opponents and because future appeals or government action had the potential to spare the 11 men.

“Let’s not mislead the public; let’s not mislead ourselves” said the House minority leader, Lawrence Cafero Jr., of Norwalk. “If it is the will of this chamber that this state is no longer in the business of executing people, then let’s say it and do it. You cannot have it both ways.”

But Democratic legislators — swayed by at least 138 cases nationally in which people sentenced to death were later exonerated and by arguments that the death penalty is imposed in a capricious, discriminatory manner and is not a deterrent to crime — voted for repeal. They noted that a repeal in New Mexico in 2009 that also exempted those already on death row had thus far withstood challenges.

After Connecticut’s repeal, 33 states will have capital punishment, along with the United States government when it prosecutes cases in the federal courts. Voters in California will be asked in November whether to abolish the death penalty in that state.

Capital punishment in Connecticut dates to colonial times. From 1639 to 2005, it performed 126 executions, first by hanging, then by the electric chair, and since 1973, by lethal injection. But since 1976, when the Supreme Court allowed the resumption of executions, there has been just one person executed in the state: Michael Bruce Ross, a serial killer who voluntarily gave up his right to further appeals and was put to death in 2005. The last person involuntarily put to death, in 1960, was Joseph (Mad Dog) Taborsky, who committed a string of robberies and killings.

Of the 1,289 executions since 1976 in the United States, 935 were in seven Southern and border states. Texas alone accounts for 481 executions.

In the Connecticut Senate, where passage seemed most in doubt, the bill was approved 20 to 16 on April 5, with 2 Democrats and all 14 Republicans opposed. Democrats have a majority in both chambers of the General Assembly.

Before that vote, Dr. Petit spoke at a news conference where he called for the Senate not to pass the bill. “We believe in the death penalty because we believe it is really the only true just punishment for certain heinous and depraved murders,” he said.

The Petit murders were cited by several opponents of the repeal, most vividly by Representative Al Adinolfi, a Republican from Cheshire, Hamden and Wallingford, who said he witnessed the chaos at the Petits’ smoldering house that day. He recounted gruesome details of the crime in arguing against the repeal.

“And we say here that Komisarjevsky and Hayes don’t deserve the death penalty? Shame on us,” he said. “They do deserve the penalty, and so do many others.”

But Democrats in favor of the bill cited support from many families of murder victims and the fact that capital punishment has long been banned by nearly all of the world’s democracies. In a review of 34 years of Connecticut death penalty cases, Prof. John Donohue of Stanford Law School concluded that “arbitrariness and discrimination are defining features of the state’s capital punishment regime.”

The political fight over the bill could persist long after the vote. Republicans are likely to put the issue in play in the fall when all 36 State Senate and 151 State House seats are up for election. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 62 percent of Connecticut residents thought abolishing the death penalty was “a bad idea,” though polls over time have found respondents split relatively evenly if given the option of life without parole as an alternative to executions.

In the final remarks in the debate late Wednesday, the House majority leader, Brendan Sharkey, a Democrat from Hamden, said the death penalty offered a false promise that did more harm than good.

“I believe that we, as human beings, should not create laws that reciprocate the evil perpetrated against society,” Mr. Sharkey said. “Those laws don’t protect us.”

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