The Connecticut House of Representatives late Wednesday gave final legislative approval to a measure repealing the state's seldom-used death penalty after more than 9 1/2 hours of often gut-wrenching debate.
Senate Bill 280 cleared the House 86-62, a vote that broke largely along party lines. The bill now goes to Gov.Dannel P. Malloy, who has pledged to sign it, ending a form of punishment in the state that dates back to Colonial times when those convicted of being witches were sent to the gallows.
"This vote tonight ... allows Connecticut to break with a centuries-old tradition of executing people and rejoin the rest of the Western world, which has long since cut bait with the death penalty,'' said Benjamin Todd Jealous, the national president of the NAACP, who watched the back-and-forth from the House gallery. "It also moves our nation forward."
Connecticut will join the 16 other states, and the District of Columbia, that have abolished capital punishment. The bill, approved by the Senate one week ago, replaces the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of release, although it stipulates that the 11 men currently on death row will still face execution; capital punishment would be abolished only for those convicted of capital offenses in the future.
"For decades, we have not had a workable death penalty,'' Malloy said in a statement issued just moments after the 10:57 p.m. vote. "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."
Throughout the lengthy debate, lawmakers publicly struggled with their ethical, legal, political and moral convictions.
"There are many that believe by creating a law that allows us to take a life in exchange for a heinous act of murder ... is somehow protecting society and protecting ourselves,'' House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey said, as the debate wound down. "With due respect to those who feel that way, I have to disagree."
Those who believe in capital punishment invoked the Sept. 11 attacks, the Petit family murders in Cheshire and a host of other horrors as they made a case for preserving the death penalty.
"I'm a man of faith and I won't tell you I haven't wrestled with my faith,'' said Rep. Russ Morin, D-Wethersfield. "But I'm going to be clear: I'm not torn on this matter, not one bit."
Morin said his support for the death penalty is rooted in a lesson learned in kindergarten: Actions have consequences. "The perpetrators of these types of heinous crimes have made their decision,'' he said. "The decisions they've made must have these consequences."
But supporters of the repeal effort say the state's death penalty is irrevocably broken — just one man, serial killer Michael Ross, has been executed in the past 50 years, and that was after he waived his appeals. Rep. T.R. Rowe, a Republican from Trumbull who supported the repeal bill, called the current death penalty "a paper tiger."
Others pointed out that government is not infallible, and the chance, however slight, of an innocent person being executed is too grave a risk when the punishment is death.
Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, cited the case of Kenneth Ireland, who spent 20 years in prison before he was cleared by new DNA evidence. "The government does make mistakes, please remember that and support this bill," she said.
Rep. Terry Backer said he is torn by the gravity of the decision. "I agree that this bill is imperfect," he said.
But Backer, D-Stratford, noted that 289 people convicted of capital murder nationwide were later exonerated.
"Many of the mistakes we make as [a] government ... have done things that haven't quite worked out the way we hoped they would work out ... but we are always able to go back and fix those things,'' he said. "Unfortunately, when we are wrong in these cases, there is no way to put them back on track."
There were at least 15 attempts to amend the bill. Republicans offered proposals to carve out certain categories of criminals, such as cop-killers and terrorists, and make them eligible for the death penalty. Another sought to ensure that prisoners do not have Internet access. All of the amendments were rejected.
In the final hour of the deliberations, Rep. Art O'Neill, R-Southbury, proposed a nonbinding referendum on the death penalty, "a real vote by the people of the state of Connecticut [which] would provide the kind of guidance so many [lawmakers] have been seeking." Like the other efforts to tinker with the bill, this one failed.
House Republican leader Larry Cafero called the measure "a fraud on the public" because the repeal is prospective and would not apply to the 11 men currently on death row.
"How can you say in your heart and with your vote that it should no longer be the policy of the state of Connecticut to commit anyone to death and yet at the same time say, 'except for these 11 guys?''' Cafero said. "How do you justify that?"
Cafero said the prospective nature of the bill is a political calculation that undercuts the moral arguments made by opponents of the death penalty.
Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, one of the most vigorous supporters of the repeal effort, didn't dispute Cafero's view that the prospective part of the bill was born as a compromise. "But the reality is I am in a room with 150 other people and I'm not so young that I believe … I know everything,'' said the New Haven Democrat. "Part of what we do here is, we figure out how do we make things happen."
Holder-Winfield said he favors complete abolition, even for the 11 occupants of death row. But, he said, "If I can't get the state to stop executing people that are already on death row, at least I can stop the state from executing people that may be on death row in the future."
Opponents of capital punishment say Connecticut is a key part of their strategy to take the question of the constitutionality of the death penalty to theU.S. Supreme Court. When Malloy signs the Connecticut bill, New Hampshire will be the only New England state with the death penalty.
"We're not going to be able to abolish the death penalty in Georgia, where Troy Davis, an innocent man, was executed,'' said Jealous, the NAACP president. "Or Texas ... until we can go to the Supreme Court and abolish it for the entire country. And we won't be able to do that until we can prove to the Supreme Court that a majority of the states have abolished it. ... Connecticut is the tipping point state."
A small group of repeal supporters, several of them family members of crime victims, watched the debate from the House gallery.
The sentiments of family members were invoked by those on both sides of the issue. Rep. Michael Molgano, a Republican from Stamford, said he understands the impulse for retribution felt by some people who lost loved ones to murder. But Molgano, who broke with his party's leaders to support the repeal bill, said he also spoke with others who say the death penalty brings no solace.
"Life imprisonment without the possibility of release is a severe and appropriate sentence for those deserving permanent exile from society," Molgano said.
A communicant at St. Bridget of Ireland Church in Stamford and a member of the Knights of Columbus, Molgano invoked the words of Pope John Paul II.
Life in prison with no possibility of release, Molgano said, "values life while upholding justice."
A bill repealing capital punishment in Connecticut cleared both the Senate and the House of Representatives in 2009, but was vetoed by then-Gov.M. Jodi Rell.
On Wednesday, her successor, Malloy, reiterated his belief that capital punishment has no place in the state's criminal justice policy.
"I'm pleased the House passed the bill, and when it gets to my desk I will sign it,'' Malloy said in his statement. "I want to be careful in the tone of my remarks, out of respect for the gravity of the issue at hand and out of respect for people on both sides of the issue. When I sign this bill, Connecticut will join 16 other states and almost every other industrialized nation in moving toward what I believe is better public policy."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times