Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, North America

U.S.: Connecticut Likely to Abolish Ultimate Punishment

Elizabeth Whitman

NEW YORK, Apr 26 2011 (IPS) - This month, Connecticut became the latest in a growing line of U.S. states to move toward ending capital punishment.

With a vote of 27-17, the state’s joint Judiciary Committee passed a bill repealing the death penalty. The bill should move to the state Senate in the next few weeks, according to state senators, and although they predict the vote will be a close one, they believe it is likely to pass.

From there it would go to the House and then Governor Dan Malloy, who has said that he would sign the bill.

Opponents of capital punishment hailed the vote as a step in the right direction towards abolishing a failed public policy. Ben Jones, executive director of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, said his group was “very happy”.

The bill is not retroactive, so the 10 people currently on death row in Connecticut would not be reprieved if the bill were passed. Only one man has been executed in Connecticut since 1973.

Recently, capital punishment has been the focal point of debate in the United States, particularly regarding the controversial case of Troy Davis, as well as a persistent shortage of lethal injection drugs that has led to several states’ attempting to obtain these using questionable means.

The death penalty was reinstated in 1977 in the United States after a 10-year moratorium. Since then, 16 states have abolished the death penalty, with Illinois being the most recent in March.

A heavy price to pay

Opponents of capital punishment draw on a wide range of reasons for why the policy needs to be abolished, but all agree that the system is deeply flawed.

Connecticut State Senator Eric Coleman, the Democratic chair of the Judiciary Committee, told IPS that he opposed the policy on both moral and practical grounds.

“I fear that… one day we may wrongfully prosecute someone for a capital crime, convict that person, and actually proceed in executing that person,” he said. From a moral standpoint, “I just think that to kill a person in the name of the state or otherwise is the wrong thing to do,” he added.

He also cited financial justifications for repealing the death penalty – money spent on the lengthy appeals process, for instance, could be better spent on education or other social services.

Others believe that many problems, legal, social and otherwise, are deeply embedded in both the death penalty and the appeals process. “The death penalty falls on the poor, minorities, those with inadequate representation at trial,” Richer Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told IPS.

Race and socioeconomic means also play a major role. According to Jones, “The race of the defendant has a big impact on who gets the death penalty. The stats show that if the victim is white, prosecutors are more likely to seek the death penalty.”

“Among people on death row, 95 percent of them cannot afford their own attorney. It’s usually the poor who end up getting sentenced to death,” he added. “It’s a broken system.”

Coleman agreed that in Connecticut specifically, “There’s a big disparity and inconsistency in the implementation of the death penalty.”

The appeals process has its own problems. Dieter told IPS that it “looks at mistakes that happen in the legal trial,” not new evidence of innocence. During the process, said Dieter, courts “are only looking at the technical legal ways in which the trial was conducted, even though there may be very powerful new information.” As a result, even if new evidence is uncovered, the appeals process may not necessarily use it to exonerate someone.

From a purely financial standpoint, the death penalty is much more costly than life imprisonment. According to Dieter, when all costs are taken into account, enforcing a death sentence costs about three million dollars – three times as much as life in prison.

Above all, however, “Mistakes can be made,” said Dieter. “With the death penalty, you cannot undo those mistakes if you have an execution. Once you’ve carried out the execution, nothing can be done to change that.”

Public ambivalence

A Gallup poll from October 2010 posed the question, “Are you in favour of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?” Sixty-four percent of those surveyed were in favour, with 29 percent against and six percent with no opinion.

But both Dieter and Jones argue that such polls do not accurately represent popular opinion.

Instead, said Jones, “Ask the question in a slightly different way and say, ‘In cases of murder do you favour the death penalty or life imprisonment without release?’ When that question is posed… support for the death penalty drops dramatically.” He added, “As people learn more about the system, they’re more willing to let go of it.”

Dieter confirmed this perspective, adding that when people are given a choice between supporting the death penalty or life imprisonment without parole, they favour the latter.

One of the driving points of the debate over ending capital punishment in Connecticut is the chilling 2007 Cheshire home invasion that resulted in the gruesome murders of a mother and her two young daughters. One of the perpetrators, Steven Hayes, was convicted and placed on death row, and the other, Joshua Komisarjevsky, has not yet been tried.

State Senator John Kissel, a ranking Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, told IPS he supports the death penalty because he believes “it performs a valuable function in our criminal justice system” by inducing defendants to cooperate with authorities.

“It does bring trials to a conclusion, in many respects, quickly,” Kissel said. “Many cases… are resolved because we do have a death penalty.”

In other situations, “Some cases are so horrific and heinous that it’s an appropriate punishment,” he said, citing the events in Cheshire as one example. “It’s just considered by the vast majority in the public to be an appropriate penalty for these individuals.”

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