POLITICS

Death Penalty In Connecticut Ruled Unconstitutional

Lawmakers repealed the state's death penalty in 2012, but stipulated it only applied to future crimes.

The Connecticut Supreme Court on Thursday ruled the state's death penalty is unconstitutional. The deeply divided court's 4-3 ruling will affect the 11 inmates currently on the state's death row.

Lawmakers repealed the state's death penalty in 2012, but stipulated it only applied to future crimes. Plaintiffs in Thursday's case had argued the 2012 ban should also extend to prisoners already on death row.  

As a result of the ruling, the inmates’ sentences will be converted to life without parole.

"Upon careful consideration of the defendant's claims in light of the governing constitutional principles and Connecticut's unique historical and legal landscape, 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.

"For these reasons, execution of those offenders who committed capital felonies prior to April 25, 2012, would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment." 

Thursday's ruling stems from an appeal by Eduardo Santiago, who was convicted in a 2000 murder-for-hire scheme and sentenced to death just weeks after lawmakers passed the 2012 death penalty repeal.  

Assistant Public Defender Mark Rademacher argued any new death sentence would violate Santiago's constitutional rights to equal protection and due process. He said it would be wrong for some people to face the death penalty while others face life in prison for similar murders.

He told the court that Connecticut had declared its opposition to the death penalty and it wouldn't make sense to execute anybody now.

During the original debate over the repeal, some legislators questioned whether a repeal that applied only to "prospective" death sentences imposed after the law went into effect would hold up to judicial scrutiny, according to the Hartford Courant.  The provision for a "prospective" repeal was added so Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, two men sentenced to die in the high-profile case of the Petit family murders, would still face the death penalty.

The court made clear its ruling was decided on state constitutional -- not federal -- grounds. Still, the ruling bears some significance in the nationwide death penalty debate, according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

"When you think about national impact, its certainly significant that a state court has said 'the death penalty offends evolving standards of decency,'" Dunham told The Huffington Post. "It’s also significant that it reaches the conclusion that the death penalty no longer serves any penological purpose: Just the fact that the court has said that is significant."

Dunham said the Connecticut Supreme Court ruling feeds into U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer's recent suggestion from Glossip v. Gross -- which the Connecticut justices heavily cited  -- that the death penalty is federally unconstitutional.   

"What's important, Justice Breyer said, was whether there was a national consensus developing against the death penalty," Dunham said. "The number of legislators that have voted to repeal the death penalty is important." 

In a statement following the state Supreme Court's decision, Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) said: 

In 2012, Connecticut joined 16 other states and the majority of the industrialized world in replacing capital punishment with the punishment of life in prison without the possibility of parole.  Since then, two additional states have abolished capital punishment.  When Connecticut's law was passed, it did not apply to the 11 inmates currently serving on death row.  We will continue to look to the judicial system for additional guidance on this rule.  But 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.

 Malloy, who signed the 2012 repeal and personally opposes the death penalty, acknowledged the complexity of the issue and called for respect of differing opinions on both sides of the debate. 

"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," Malloy said. "My thoughts and prayers are with them during what must be a difficult day."

Connecticut has executed only two inmates in the past 54 years, both of whom effectively volunteered for execution by abandoning their appeals.

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story. 

This post has been updated with more detail on the case and the background of the death penalty repeal law.

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