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Connecticut Supreme Court, citing death penalty's failings, broadens state's ban

Michael B. Ross wanted to die. He'd wanted to die for years, but the state of Connecticut couldn't manage to kill him.

"I'm trying to get this damn thing over," Ross, a serial killer who murdered eight women and girls, told a Connecticut judge in 1995 as he sought to expedite his own execution after a 1987 conviction.

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It didn't work. Even though Ross had dismissed his defense attorneys, they intervened with appeals, filings and hearings. He continued to waive his appeals, but it took another decade before the state finally executed him on May 13, 2005.

That's how Ross became the first person to be executed in New England in 45 years.

On Thursday, the Connecticut Supreme Court expanded the state's ban on capital punishment to 11 inmates who had been left in limbo by a 2012 change in the law.

The inmates had been sentenced to death before the state ban on capital punishment went into effect, and were theoretically subject to execution.

The high court spared the inmates for good Thursday, saying that executing them when the state had banned capital punishment was absurd.

"This state's death penalty no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose," Justice Richard N. Palmer wrote in the court's ruling, which came in response to an appeal from one of those inmates, Eduardo Santiago.

Palmer's reasons included that executions have been carried out disproportionately against the poor and members of racial or immigrant groups that are subject to discrimination.

But it was Ross' case that the justice held up to show the extent to which capital punishment had already largely disappeared from Connecticut.

"Over the past 55 years ... during which thousands of murders have been committed in the state, our criminal justice system has conducted but a single execution, and that only after the condemned man all but forced the state to carry out his sentence," Palmer wrote.

"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," Palmer continued. "There is no reason to believe that any Connecticut executions would be carried out in the foreseeable future."

That's true for many jurisdictions across the U.S. as lethal-injection drugs become harder to find, DNA exonerations give officials doubt and defense attorneys continue to file appeals.

One federal judge ruled last year that the situation had gotten similarly Kafkaesque in California, where waits on death row had become so long -- regularly lasting decades -- that executions had become unconstitutionally random. Of the more than 900 people sentenced to death in California since 1978, only 13 had been executed -- the last one in 2006.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld executions by lethal injection, 5-4. But two of the dissenters in that case, Glossip vs. Gross, invited a historic challenge to the death penalty. Justice Stephen G. Breyer characterized capital punishment as "unfair, cruel and unusual"; Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined his dissent.

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Although 31 states still have capital punishment laws on their books, its use is largely a geographic phenomenon, increasingly limited to a few jurisdictions in the South and the Midwest.

In 2013, the Death Penalty Information Center found that only 2% of the nation's counties were responsible for placing a majority of the inmates on death row.

Just seven states have carried out all executions in the U.S. since 2014: Texas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Georgia, Ohio, Arizona and Florida.

Even in those states, the pace seems to be slowing. In 2014, 35 inmates were executed in the U.S. -- the fewest in 20 years. This year is on course to have even fewer, with 19 executions so far, compared with 27 at the same time last year.

After Thursday's ruling in Connecticut, New Hampshire is the only state in New England with the death penalty on its books. But it has only one inmate on death row, and state lawmakers came within one vote last year of abolishing capital punishment altogether.

Connecticut's 2012 law came after passionate marathon debates in the state Senate and House of Representatives.

"The perpetrators of these types of heinous crimes have made their decision," Rep. Russ Morin, a Democrat who joined most Republicans in opposing the death-penalty repeal, argued then. "The decisions they've made must have these consequences."

But the bill passed and was signed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. On Thursday, Malloy said Connecticut had joined "the majority of the industrialized world" in banning executions.

"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 said in a statement. "Many on death row are able to take advantage of endless appeals that cost the taxpayers millions of dollars, and give those convicted killers an undeserved platform for public attention."

Ross was one of them. When he finally died in 2005, "the execution ended 21 years of protracted court proceedings and the endless publicity that surrounded Ross, a Cornell College graduate who wrote prolifically from prison and was published in magazines and professional journals," the Hartford Courant wrote.

Jennifer Tabor, whose 19-year-old stepsister, Robin Stavinsky, was murdered by Ross, attended his execution. Afterward, Tabor said she hoped that Ross would become a "faint memory" whose notoriety would finally end.

"Now the anger caused by Michael Ross' crimes can begin to fade into a safe place," Tabor said in a statement.

By then, her anger was decades old. Tabor was 12 when Ross killed Stavinsky in 1983. Ross' case lasted longer than Tabor's stepsister had lived.

The Hartford Courant contributed to this report.

Follow @MattDPearce for national news

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