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Is Death Row Still Death Row If Repeal Passes?

Religious leaders stop to pray as they march to the state Capitol for a rally to support repealing the death penalty, in Hartford, Conn., on Tuesday. The state Senate passed a bill abolishing capital punishment Thursday.
Religious leaders stop to pray as they march to the state Capitol for a rally to support repealing the death penalty, in Hartford, Conn., on Tuesday. The state Senate passed a bill abolishing capital punishment Thursday.

Following a vote this week in the state Senate, it's all but certain that Connecticut will become the next state to abolish the death penalty. But residents are divided over what a repeal will mean for those currently on death row.

State Sen. Edward Meyer stressed that the bill — which makes life in prison without parole the maximum sentence — was not retroactive.

"It doesn't affect the 11 inmates that are on death row right now," he said.

But critics of the legislation say any bill to end capital punishment could be used as grounds for an appeal to spare those on death row.

Johanna Petit Chapman lost her sister-in-law and nieces in a brutal triple homicide in the suburban town of Cheshire in 2007. Two paroled felons broke into her brother's home and held the family hostage for hours. The mother and daughters were killed. The father was badly beaten, but survived. The men responsible were convicted and sentenced to death.

"A prospective repeal is absolutely a lie," Petit Chapman said. "There's just no way that that's ever going to ever happen. If the abolitionists want to do away with the death penalty in the state of Connecticut, at least be honest about it and call it a total repeal."

Meyer acknowledges that it hasn't been tested, but is confident the bill would hold up in court.

"The legal opinions that we got over the last few weeks have been that the court will discern between the current people and the future," he said.

This is the third time in recent years that Connecticut lawmakers have considered repealing the death penalty. In 2009, a bill reached the desk of then-Gov. Jodi Rell, but she vetoed it, in part she said, because of the Cheshire murders.

Last year, a measure passed out of committee but never reached the floor because two senators changed their minds, citing the ongoing trial. This time around, four senators who had supported the death penalty changed their votes, and the measure passed, 20 to 16.

Death penalty opponents say it just doesn't work in Connecticut. One person has been executed in the past 50 years, after the inmate waived his right to appeal. State Sen. Eric Coleman, who led the debate for repeal, says Connecticut can't afford to spend millions in appellate procedures for each death row inmate.

"One of the things that I'm encouraged by is that that money can be diverted to address some of the unmet needs of our elderly, our young people or our educational system," he said.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that by a 62 percent to 31 percent margin, voters in the state say abolishing the death penalty is a "bad idea." But Victoria Coward said she's glad that Connecticut is poised to end capital punishment. Her 18-year-old son was shot and killed in New Haven in 2007.

"Death for death is not right," she said. "I would never wish anybody to go through what I'm going through right now, but this right here was a positive for me."

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, says Connecticut is falling into line with more states nationwide. Repeal legislation is pending in Kentucky, Maryland and Kansas, and a referendum to end capital punishment is expected to go before California voters in November.

"Other states have abolished the death penalty, such as Illinois and New Mexico recently," Dieter said. "And overall death sentences are dropping, executions are declining and the size of death row is smaller."

Connecticut's bill now moves to the House of Representatives, where it is expected to pass easily. And Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy has pledged that if the bill reaches his desk, he'll sign it.

Copyright 2020 Connecticut Public Radio. To see more, visit Connecticut Public Radio.

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  • Illinois has banned the death penalty, joining 15 other states that have abolished capital punishment for convicted prisoners. Gov. Patrick Quinn signed the bill to end the practice and commuted the sentences of 15 inmates who had been on the state's Death Row.