The last person executed in Connecticut was Michael Ross. He had to fight his way to the court system to get them to put him to death. Today’s high courts ruled 5-2 the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment.
The court’s decision overturned death sentences imposed on Russell Peeler Jr. and ordered a lower court to impose life in prison without the possibility of release. Peeler had been on death row for ordering the 1999 killings of a woman and her 8-year-old son in Bridgeport. The boy, B.J. Brown, was to testify against Peeler in another murder case.
Justices reconsidered a 4-3 ruling they made in August in the appeal of another death row inmate, Eduardo Santiago. The majority declared capital punishment no longer comported with the state constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and was out of step with contemporary standards of decency.
Last year’s ruling revealed a deep rift in the court, with justices writing concurring and dissenting opinions that included highly unusual criticism of each other.
In 2012, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy struck down the death penalty, taking it off the table for any future sentencings. But there were still 11 men left on death row, who could still be put to death until today’s ruling, according to Quinnipiac law professor Kevin Barry.
“They repealed the death penalty for future crimes, they did not repeal the death penalty for those people on death row and they did that deliberately,” said Barry.
The majority in last year’s landmark ruling essentially said it wouldn’t be fair to execute the remaining death row inmates when lawmakers had determined the death penalty was no longer needed for future killers.
The 2012 ban had been passed prospectively because many lawmakers refused to vote for a bill that would spare the death penalty for Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, who were convicted of killing a mother and her two daughters in a highly publicized 2007 home invasion in Cheshire.
Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane says they will now begin reclassifying those death row inmates from death row, to imprisoned for life without parole. So, what happens to those 11 inmates that are on death row now? Attorney Dan Barrett with the ACLU believes they should been given a chance to reenter the general population.
“Provided that a prisoner is behaving himself or herself and is not a threat to the guards, there is no reason they can’t be in with the general population, but they will be spending the rest of their life behind bars,” said Barrett.
Barrett says one of the reasons the judges abolished the death penalty is to spare the families a lengthy appeals process. When a prisoner goes behind bars for life with no chance of parole, there are only one or two ways to appeal the decision.
Opponents of the death penalty immediately praised Thursday’s ruling.
Sheila Denion, project director for the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, said the decision “takes the prudent step of ending the state’s failed death penalty and the possibility of any future executions.”
The state’s death penalty was criticized by both critics and advocates alike, because state law allowed multiple appeals that virtually assured that no one would be executed for decades. Connecticut’s last execution was of serial killer Michael Ross in 2005, but only after Ross dropped all his appeals.
Chief Justice Chase Rogers, who dissented in last year’s ruling, joined the majority in Thursday’s decision, saying she had to respect the legal precedent set by the court only months earlier.
Malloy, who signed the 2012 law that left death row inmates still facing execution, said in a statement that his opposition to the death penalty arose after many years as a prosecutor, attorney and public servant.
“These are deeply personal and moral issues that we as a society are facing and the court has once again ruled on today,” Malloy said. “Our focus today should not be on those currently sitting on death row, but with their victims and those surviving family members.”
The reclassification process is expected to begin soon.