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The Hartford Courant, Published April 26 2012

Connecticut repeals death penalty

HARTFORD, Conn. - Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy quietly signed a bill repealing Connecticut's death penalty on Wednesday, effectively pulling the curtain on a practice that has been state policy since a Native American named Napauduck was hanged for murder in 1639.

“I signed legislation that will, effective today, replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of release as the highest form of legal punishment in Connecticut,” Malloy, a Democrat, said after a solemn ceremony in his office that was closed to the media and the public. “Although it is an historic moment - Connecticut joins 16 other states and the rest of the industrialized world by taking this action - it is a moment for sober reflection, not celebration.”

About 30 invited guests crowded into the governor's office at the state Capitol to watch him sign the bill, which had cleared both chambers of General Assembly earlier this month. Among them were members of the clergy, legislative leaders and the families of murder victims.

The low-key bill-signing came the same day as a new Quinnipiac University poll showing nearly two-thirds of Connecticut voters support capital punishment. But the same survey found opinions were far more divided when respondents were asked to chose between the death penalty and life in prison without the possibility of release. Given that choice, 46 percent chose the death penalty while 46 percent chose life in prison without release.

“The death penalty is a complex issue for voters, and for pollsters,” said Quinnipiac Poll Director Douglas Schwartz said. “While they want to keep the death penalty on the books, voters are divided on whether they prefer to sentence convicted murderers to death or life without parole. In fact, 74 percent say a life or death sentence depends on the circumstances of the case.”

The measure signed by Malloy applies only to future cases; the 11 men already on Connecticut's death row will remain there.

Still, opponents of capital punishment hailed the state's new law. Illinois, New Mexico and New Jersey have all abolished capital punishment in recent years, and a court declared New York's death penalty law unconstitutional in 2004. Voters in California, home to the largest death row in the nation, will hold a referendum on capital punishment in November.

“Lawmakers in Connecticut finally saw the death penalty for what it is _ a barbaric and irreversible punishment that does nothing to stop crime or support its victims,” Suzanne Nossel, executive director, Amnesty International USA, said in a statement.

Malloy notes that Connecticut is no longer part of a group that includes China, Iraq, Iran and Yemen. “We effectively (leave) only one industrialized nation and that's Japan. All of the rest of the industrialized world has already taken the step that we've taken today,” he told reporters after the bill signing.

Capital punishment has been a part of the state's criminal code since colonial times. The state stopped executing people for witchcraft and incest in the 17th century, according to “The Solemn Sentence of Death: Capital Punishment in Connecticut” by University of Connecticut historian Lawrence Goodheart. Twelve-year-old Hannah Occuish, hanged in 1786, was the last female executed in Connecticut, Goodheart writes.

In the past 50 years, just two men, Joseph “Mad Dog” Taborsky and Michael Ross, were put to death in the state, and each man waived their appeals.

On Wednesday, some supporters of capital punishment said they will launch a drive to reinstate it.

“Gov. Malloy has made the wrong decision by signing this repeal,” said state Rep. Al Adinolfi, a Republican. “Murderers in prison now for life without the possibility of parole will have nothing to lose by assaulting or killing a prison guard or another inmate. They know the death penalty is no longer an option to hold over their head. Instead, murderers will get free state health care, recreational activities and meals for life.”

House Republican Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. predicted that none of the 11 men on death row will ever receive the punishment they were given.

“The legislature was not being honest with Connecticut when it voted to repeal capital punishment for only future capital felony offenses,” Cafero said. "That vote created a two-tier application of the death penalty, a system that effectively will spare all 11 convicted murderers and rapists already on death row, the death chamber. Neither the governor's statements issued or his signature changes anything. The sentences handed out by those who sat in judgment of these criminals will not be carried out.’'

Malloy, a former prosecutor, said his views on capital punishment have changed over the course of his life.

“As a young man, I was a death penalty supporter,” he said. “Then I spent years as a prosecutor and pursued dangerous felons in court, including murderers. In the trenches of a criminal courtroom, I learned firsthand that our system of justice is very imperfect. While it's a good system designed with the highest ideals of our democratic society in mind, like most of human experience, it is subject to the fallibility of those who participate in it. ... I came to believe that doing away with the death penalty was the only way to ensure it would not be unfairly imposed.”