04/23/2012 11:42 am ET Updated Jun 23, 2012

Families of Murder Victims Key to Victory in Repeal of Death Penalty in Connecticut

By Robert Nave

One of the false premises often cited to support the death penalty is that it delivers "justice" to the victims of violent crimes and their families. Yet, many families of murder victims disagree with this argument. In Connecticut, nearly 200 relatives of victims of violent crime told lawmakers that the death penalty would only increase their anguish. Their voices were critical to persuading the State Legislature to repeal capital punishment.

These spouses, siblings, parents and others told legislators that exacting revenge would not help them heal, nor end their pain. They were adamant that countering one murder with a state-sanctioned killing would only prolong and exacerbate their suffering. The cumbersome legal process that leads to an actual execution, while necessary, also keeps the spotlight on the murder and especially the murderer, often for decades -- an agonizing process for families. Ultimately, they said, justice would be served by imprisoning the murderers of their loved ones.

Lawmakers considered many facts about the death penalty, including the exonerations of death row inmates due to the evolution of DNA evidence. The debate took place against the triple homicide in 2007 of the Petit family, in which two men were convicted last year.

The family members offered a measured response to those who said Connecticut must keep the death penalty to punish the men convicted for this terrible crime.

I have been a human rights advocate working to end the death penalty for more than a decade. During that time, some of these family members have become my dearest friends. They are mothers whose children were killed in street violence, young people who lost parents to domestic violence, and siblings whose brothers or sisters died violently. They helped me to understand how the death penalty actually hurts victims' families.

The pivotal moment came in 2004 when Michael Ross, the serial killer, gave up his appeals and the state scheduled his execution.

With others who oppose the death penalty on grounds that it is the ultimate human rights violation, I began organizing protests, vigils and marches against his execution.

Two women who lost loved ones to murder, Elizabeth Brancato and Gail Canzano, joined our cause.

As a psychologist, Gail had testified about the psychological trauma families experience during the long death penalty process, in which appeals can go on for decades.

Elizabeth was one of the leaders of a 27-mile march we organized from Hartford to the state prison in Somers, where the execution would take place.

The second day of the march coincided with the anniversary of her mother's murder. The dignity and grace she demonstrated -- and her resolve to fight capital punishment instead of disgracing her mother's name by supporting another killing -- profoundly moved us and inspired other relatives of murder victims to join our movement to abolish the death penalty.

Immediately following Ross' execution, one after another relatives of murder victims, inspired by Elizabeth, started contacting me and others asking how they could get involved.

As each told their stories, they encouraged others to step forward and the impact mushroomed.

By the start of the 2012 legislative session, 180 state residents whose family members had been murdered endorsed a letter sent to every Connecticut lawmaker in favor of ending the death penalty.

Ultimately, the families helped us win the votes needed to abolish the death penalty in the State Senate and House.

When Gov. Dannel Malloy signs the bill repealing the death penalty -- as he has promised to do -- we will celebrate victory with these individuals who, despite their unimaginable pain and sorrow, helped to convince people in Connecticut that compounding one tragedy with another is not justice.

Robert Nave is a high school social studies teacher in Connecticut and Amnesty International's Northeast regional/Connecticut death penalty abolition coordinator.