Lawmakers clash in all-night debate; Rell veto possible
By Ted Mann
Hartford -- The Connecticut Senate voted to abolish the death penalty early Friday morning after a marathon debate, narrowly approving a bill that would make life imprisonment without possibility of release the state’s highest criminal punishment.
The Senate approved the death penalty bill, 19-17, shortly after 4 a.m., after nearly 11 hours of debate. The same measure had previously passed in the House of Representatives, and proceeds to Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who has appeared likely to veto the bill.
If signed into law, the bill would make Connecticut the 16th American state without an active death penalty statute.
"Today’s there been a shift — history has been made in the state legislature," said Senate President Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn.
But before that history could happen, partisan acrimony virtually derailed the workings of the chamber, as the death penalty bill ran head-on into a deliberate slow-down effort by the Senate’s 12-member Republican minority, prompted by the minority party’s anger at the management of business in the Senate.
Republicans filed 26 amendments on the bill, eventually calling five, and finally withdrew their remaining amendments from consideration after securing an agreement from Williams not to force a debate on reform of the state probate courts even later into Friday morning.
After the vote, Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, the bill’s chief proponent and the co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, sounded tired but jubilant.
“This was a historic day for our chamber and for our state,” McDonald said. “I would encourage the governor to take some time and reflect on the magnitude of what the people’s chambers have said today, and to consider anew the continued viability or utility of the death penalty in a civilized society.”
The bill, already passed with bipartisan support in the House of Representatives last week, faced a far stiffer challenge in the Senate, and now from Rell, a Republican who supports capital punishment.
Even as debate on the bill began at 5:23 p.m., those counting votes were less than certain that supporters could gather the 19 votes needed for passage.
Their work was just beginning. The first amendment to the bill wasn’t called until well after midnight, at which point the senators had already engaged in a lengthy and emotional debate on the propriety and efficacy of the death penalty as a public safety measure, corrective to wrongdoers, retribution on behalf of survivors and solace to the aggrieved.
Supporters of abolition argued that the death penalty is ultimately “unworkable,” because the appeals afforded to condemned inmates in order to comply with the state and U.S. Constitutions inevitably draw out the post-sentencing period for years and even decades, prolonging agony for the survivors of their victims.
And, they argued, the most severe punishment was not that levied on the 10 men on Connecticut’s death row, but that issued to 46 other individuals also convicted of brutal murders in Connecticut: Life imprisonment with no chance of ever being released.
“You don’t know their names,” said McDonald. “They have been put into prison and told, ‘That is where you will die.’ The names we know are those who still demand our attention because they are under a sentence of death.”
Connecticut has put just one prisoner to death in the last 48 years: serial killer Michael Ross, who was executed in 2005, only after he had dropped his appeals and asked to receive his death sentence.
Ross’ was the first execution in Connecticut since that of Joseph Taborsky in 1961, and the first in New England in generations. Connecticut and New Hampshire are the only two states remaining in New England with a death-penalty statute; New Hampshire has no prisoners on death row.
“Death in many instances is too kind a penalty for some of these defendants,” McDonald said. “In my opinion, it is a harsher punishment to sentence an individual to life in prison without possibility of release. To know that every day when you wake up you will still be in an 8-by-10 (foot) cell. You will still not have direct sunlight in your life. You will still have the obligation to consider the harm and pain that you have inflicted on your victims.”
But the bill is bitterly opposed by many others in the legislature who insist that execution is the only proper response to crimes like those for which Connecticut’s death row convicts have been sentenced to die.
Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, the Judiciary Committee’s ranking member, took issue with the argument that life imprisonment could replace execution as an equally severe punishment, with a hypothetical example of a deranged gunman charging into the Senate chamber and ordering senators to choose one or the other.
“I don’t know anybody choosing death,” Kissel said. “Why’s that? Because life without possibility of release affords at least a hair’s breadth of an opportunity to get free. To be released. To be pardoned. And indeed, part of the argument in opposition to this bill is the notion that this is just a first step along a path of leniency. Because if our state legislature can throw out the death penalty and impose life without possibility of release, then what’s next?”
People relieved to hear that a killer has died after committing crimes are not “happy because there’s a blood lust,” Kissel said later. “It’s not they’re happy because they’re sort of mean or horrible people, or conservative. No, no, no. They’re happy because in their heart of hearts, the threat is gone. That’s the end of that crazy person. That threat is over.”
And Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, read one by one on the Senate floor the capsule descriptions of the crimes committed by Connecticut’s 10 death row inmates.
Of the rape and murder committed by Cedric Cobb, who abducted his young victim from a department store parking garage, McLachlan exclaimed, “This one makes me want to cry.”
Meanwhile, Rell reiterated her support for the death penalty Thursday, increasing the likelihood of a veto, which supporters do not have the votes to override.
“You know how I feel about the death penalty,” the governor said. “I’ve always believed there are some crimes that are so heinous it deserves the death penalty.”
Hours into the debate, well after 1:30 a.m., Kissel spoke in favor of one of the Republican amendments, which would have established a carve-out to allow executions in the event of a murder of a police officer. The senator defended the very limbo and years of appeals that supporters invoke in calling for the elimination of the statute.
The state's worst killers, he exclaimed, should be told to “sit there, with a sword of Damocles over your head every day, until Connecticut finally gets its act together and you go and get lethal injection. And if it’s 10 or 20 years, tough luck.”
The extensive Republican commentary on that amendment brought a fiery rejoinder, however, from Sen. Eileen Daily, D-Westbrook, who noted that her uncle had been taken prisoner while serving as a guard in a jail — not “good enough to be taken into consideration in this amendment,” Daily noted — when he was briefly taken prisoner. The senator's sister who served in the Drug Enforcement Administration was shot at, and hit by a truck in the course of a raid.
In each instance, Daily said, her elders instructed her to pray for the culprits, not seek retribution.
“In my family, the people who go into law enforcement were not about to go into the business of killing people,” Daily said. “And I’m not about to either.”
A little more than a week after an intensely personal debate in the House, which eventually voted 90-56 for abolition, many senators reflected changing opinions on the issue.
Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, supported the 1995 law that strove to make, at the urging of then-Gov. John G. Rowland, a more “workable” death penalty. But 14 years later, with what Stillman said was considerable constituent support for repeal and her own misgivings about the impossibility of ensuring no innocent could be put to death, she said Thursday she would vote to eliminate the penalty.
Meanwhile, Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, told colleagues she had gone from a supporter of the death penalty to an opponent, and now was wavering over whether to support it again at the thought that inmates sentenced to life without possibility of release might be able to move about and socialize with other inmates.
But after assurances, Prague was leaning back toward opposition again, invoking the case of James Tillman, who was wrongly convicted in 1989 of sexual assault, kidnapping and other charges, eventually serving more than 16 years in prison.
“My sense is that our justice system makes mistakes,” Prague said. “And to sentence people to death is not a mistake you can undo.”
Prague eventually voted Yes.
Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, is another former supporter of the death penalty who now opposes it, despite what he described as empathy for those who feel a desire for vengeance after the murder of a loved one, but said he believed the process of seeking execution played into the narcissistic desires of some killers, like Ross, to dominate the public’s attention.
“I want, frankly, to forget about them,” Maynard said. “I don’t want them to be put on the front page of newspapers, to be celebrities. They have done horrible things, and they should be taken out of society.”
But, Maynard said, he had come to see the willingness to put killers to death as “coarsening the public’s attitude toward the value of human life.”
CT DEATH-PENALTY BILL SUMMARY
-Existing crime of capital felony is retitled “murder with special circumstances.”
-Maximum penalty of death is eliminated, leaving highest sentence of life imprisonment with no possibility of release.
-Effective upon passage and prospectively; does not commute death sentences of existing death row inmates.
-HOW LOCAL SENATORS VOTED
-Daily, Westbrook: YES
-Maynard, Stonington: YES
-Prague, Columbia: YES
-Stillman, Waterford: YES
Special Sauce I was watching The Green Mile when I got a text about this, which was really creepy.
Jodi Rell, either bring back my hockey team or GTFO. Seriously. Connecticut ONTDP-ers, if you're against the Death Penalty, contact your state senator and tell them to get more support so Rell doesn't veto this down. This would be fantastic if it passed.