Connecticut Ends Exemptions to Its Death-Penalty Ban [WSJ]

August 14, 2015


The Connecticut Supreme Court on Thursday struck down exemptions to the state’s death-penalty ban, calling the punishments a violation of Connecticut’s constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Connecticut lawmakers passed a law repealing the death penalty in 2012 that was signed by Gov. Dannel Malloy. The law, however, applied only to crimes committed after the law took effect, and 11 inmates remained on death row.

Eduardo Santiago, convicted of killing Joseph Niwinski in 2000 in a murder-for-hire scheme, challenged that exemption in court. He had been sentenced to death, but the Connecticut Supreme Court overturned that judgment in June 2012 and ordered a new penalty phase.

While that process was under way, Mr. Santiago again petitioned the Connecticut Supreme Court, which agreed in September 2012 to hear his case. He argued that the new law bars the death penalty in his case and that such a sentence would violate the state constitution. The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in Mr. Santiago’s favor.

“We are persuaded that, following its prospective abolition, this state’s death penalty no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose,” Justice Richard Palmer wrote for the majority in the decision issued on Thursday.

The majority noted that Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane, who represented Connecticut in Mr. Santiago’s case, testified when the ban was debated in 2012 that the law “could not pass constitutional muster.”

Still, the state opposed striking down the death penalty for those who committed crimes before the ban’s enactment. Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Harry Weller said in court papers that it was the state Legislature’s intent to keep the death penalty for crimes committed before the effective date and that the provision shouldn’t be struck down.

A spokesman for the state’s attorney’s office said it was reviewing the decision and had no comment. Mr. Santiago’s attorney didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The majority said in its ruling that even if the death-penalty ban were never enacted, it is unlikely that an execution would be carried out in the foreseeable future.

“The 11 men currently on death row in Connecticut are, at the least, many years, and most likely decades, away from exhausting all of their state and federal appeals and habeas remedies,” the majority wrote.

Connecticut has executed only one person since 1960: serial killer Michael Ross, who died in 2005 after dropping his appeals.

Mr. Malloy said his office would “continue to look to the judicial system for additional guidance” on how the ruling affects those inmates currently on death row. “It’s clear that those currently serving on death row will serve the rest of their life in a Department of Corrections facility with no possibility of ever obtaining freedom,” he said.

“Today is a somber day where our focus should not be on the 11 men sitting on death row, but with their victims and those surviving families’ members,” Mr. Malloy added. “My thoughts and prayers are with them during what must be a difficult day.”

The Legislature passed the death-penalty ban with an exemption for earlier crimes after being lobbied by William Petit Jr., the lone survivor of a 2007 home invasion in which the perpetrators murdered his wife and two daughters. Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky were found guilty of those crimes and sentenced to death.

A spokesman for Dr. Petit didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In her dissent, Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers criticized the majority’s argument that the death penalty is inconsistent with contemporary societal views, noting that the Legislature expressly kept it in place for crimes committed before the law took effect.

“The majority’s decision to strike down the death penalty in its entirety is a judicial invalidation, without constitutional basis, of the political will of the people,” she wrote.

State Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, a Republican, slammed the ruling, saying it “deliberately circumvented the will of the people and the legislators who represent each and every Connecticut resident.”