HARTFORD — After a sweeping two-year review, the state Supreme Court outlawed capital punishment in Connecticut, saying Thursday that the state's death penalty no longer comports with evolved societal values and serves no valid purpose as punishment.
The 4-3 decision effectively removes 11 convicts from Connecticut's death row and overturns the latest iteration of the state's death penalty, a political compromise effective April 2012 that barred death sentences going forward but allowed the execution of inmates already sentenced.
Critics, including dissenting justices, accused the court's majority of substituting its judgment on evolving values for that of an elected legislature and governor who enacted the law.
The majority decision, written by Justice Richard N. Palmer, found flaws in the 2012 death penalty law, which banned "prospective" death sentences, those imposed after the effective date of the law. But the majority wrote that it chose to analyze capital punishment and impose abolition from a broader perspective.
After analysis of the law and "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," Palmer wrote.
"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."
Palmer was joined in the majority, in what amounted to a contentious decision, by Justices Dennis G. Eveleigh, Flemming Norcott and Andrew J. McDonald. There were two concurrences and three dissents.
The case was based on an appeal by Eduardo Santiago, a Torrington man convicted of taking an inoperable snowmobile as payment in a murder for hire. The high court said that Santiago was improperly sentenced to death, but used the case as a means of examining the legality of the
One of the questions that Santiago asked the court to resolve was whether, under the 2012 revision, ''the death penalty is no longer consistent with standards of decency in Connecticut and does not serve any valid penological objective." Those standards generally protect citizens from cruel or unusual punishment. The majority said that was the only question it addressed.
Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers was among the dissenters and wrote that "every step" of the majority's opinion was "fundamentally flawed."
"The majority's determination that the death penalty is unconstitutional under our state's constitution is based on a house of cards, falling under the slightest breath of scrutiny," Rogers wrote in one of three dissenting opinions.
Rogers and Justice Carmen E. Espinosa wrote that Connecticut's death penalty was not out of touch with values on decency and punishment because it was enacted by elected representatives of the state's voters.
Rogers suggested that the General Assembly might be more attuned to societal value than the court, when she wrote that "the majority disregards the obvious: the legislature, which represents the people of the state and is the best indicator of contemporary societal mores, expressly retained the death penalty" for pre-2012 crimes.
Espinosa wrote in her dissent that the legislature might yet be able to revive capital punishment in Connecticut. She said the majority decision does not actually "strike a dagger into the heart of the death penalty" — and leaves open the possibility that the legislature could reinstate the law.
"Because the majority opinion has grounded its decision on the conclusion, albeit incorrect, that the death penalty no longer comports with evolving standards of decency, the legislature has the power to reenact the death penalty," she wrote. "As the majority recognizes, there is nothing that requires that the standards of decency evolve only in one direction."
The majority responded in a footnote, saying that its decision might require the legislature to amend the state Constitution if it wants to execute criminals in Connecticut in the future.
"Of course, if the citizens of Connecticut wish to reinstate the death penalty, they may always amend the state constitution, as the citizens of California and Massachusetts did, to clarify that the punishment is and will remain constitutional notwithstanding any evolution in the state's standards of decency," the majority wrote.
The third dissent, filed jointly by Espinosa and Justice Peter T. Zarella, argued that the majority opinion contravened public values, which they said were clear in the legislature's desire to expose criminals who committed crimes prior to April 2012 to death sentences even if they were not convicted and sentenced until after the effective date of the law.
"If the legislature, as the majority claims, had rejected the death penalty only on the ground that it is barbaric, excessive, arbitrary and discriminatory, then why would it have enacted a retention provision specifically allowing executions to go forward for all current death row inmates, and why would it have permitted future arrests, indictments, the commencement of trials, and executions to be carried out with respect to those who had not yet been charged with a capital crime but who had committed such a crime before the effective date of [the revised law]?" Zarella and Espinosa wrote.
The majority's analysis of cruel, unusual and unconstitutional — a 91-page decision with 116 footnotes — included a scholarly analysis that reached back nearly 400 years into the state's pre-Colonial past and found a historic trend toward leniency.
As early as the 1660s, the majority wrote, magistrates were setting aside the most brutal forms of corporal punishment.
"Whipping began to fall out of favor, for example, with fines — and, in the case of fornication, mandatory marriage — emerging as the primary sanction for many sexual crimes and crimes against property," according to the decision.
Rogers, meanwhile, applied a more contemporary analysis of public sentiment toward the death penalty, noting in her dissent that just two years ago, a Quinnipiac University poll found that 59 percent of registered voters in Connecticut supported the death penalty for convicted murderers. "Thus, there is no factual or legal support for a conclusion that the citizens of this state find the death penalty to be morally repugnant, even for the most horrific crimes," she wrote.
The majority shot back that Rogers, in a 2011 death-penalty case, had noted the "weaknesses inherent in public opinion polls as objective measures of the popular psyche."
"Now, in a stark about-face," the majority wrote, "Chief Justice Rogers criticizes the majority for not focusing on the question of whether a majority of Connecticut citizens, as gauged by public opinion polls, currently believe that the death penalty is immoral."
Political reaction to the decision was predictable.
"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 family members," said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a death penalty opponent. "My thoughts and prayers are with them during what must be a difficult day."
Malloy said that the state's capital punishment laws were impractical and unwieldy, based on the fact that the state has executed two men in 54 years, both of whom volunteered for execution. He said that Connecticut joins 18 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
Senate Minority Leader
"Their ruling deliberately circumvented the will of the people and the legislators who represent each and every Connecticut resident," Fasano said.
It was clear from its inception that the state's "prospective" death penalty statute would undergo a bruising constitutional challenge. It was a compromise worked out between death penalty advocates and opponents in the aftermath of a horrific home invasion in Cheshire, during which two ex-convicts assaulted and murdered three members of the Petit family.
The resulting law, in the view of most political observers, was an expedient means of ending capital punishment in Connecticut while continuing to press for the execution of the two killers convicted in the Petit case,
The legislative debate anticipated one of the points made by the Supreme Court majority — that "following a prospective only repeal, the imposition of the death penalty would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment."
Even the state's top prosecutor, Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane, predicted that a death penalty applied only to crimes committed before April 2012 would fail constitutional review.
Despite misgivings, the General Assembly pressed forward with a law that would enforce death sentences in the Petit case.
John Holdridge, an attorney who who represents Komisarjevsky, applauded the decision Thursday that effectively moved his client and Hayes off death row.
"We are extremely gratified by the court's decision, which was compelled by the rule of law," Holdridge said.
William Petit, the sole survivor of the Cheshire home invasion, criticized the majority's decision. "The dissenting justices clearly state how the four members of the majority have disregarded keystones of our governmental structure such as the separation of powers and the role of judicial precedent to reach the decision they hand down today," Petit wrote. "The death penalty and its application is a highly charged topic with profound emotional impact, particularly on the victims and their loved ones. Justice Espinosa, in her dissent especially, forcefully and compassionately recognizes that devastating impact."
Cynthia Hawke-Renn, the sister of
"I don't think that will ever happen now in this case," she said.
The last person executed in Connecticut was serial killer Michael Ross, who was put to death in 2005 only after he waged a yearslong legal fight to end his appeals and to have the sentence imposed.