Lawmakers Digest Death Penalty Debate

By Ann-Marie Adams, Staff Writer

HARTFORD – The legislature judiciary committee’s all-day public hearing on Monday elicited impassioned testimonies from about 60 people on whether Connecticut should repeal the death penalty.

Proponents included Dr. William Petit Jr. and Linda Binnenkade. Both families are victims of two heinous crimes. Dr. Petit’s wife and children were murdered during a 2007 home invasion in Cheshire. In 2003 Binnekade’s brother-in-law, Barry Rossi, was murdered in Windsor Locks. Perpetrators for both crimes are on death row, and one is awaiting trial.

Death penalty advocates included the state’s public defenders’ office, those released from death row because of innocence and Innocence Project Director Barry Scheck (center in featured photo).

A key concern was whether the law would be retroactive, thereby giving those already on death row another reason to prolong the appeals process.

Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, (D-New Haven) dismissed that idea, saying the argument focused on a non-issue. That’s because a prospective bill deals with the time the crime was committed, not the time a trial is held. Therefore, the upcoming murder trial of Petit’s family would not be affected if this new bill were to become law.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk. In 2009, both the house and the senate passed a similar bill. However, Gov. Jodi Rell vetoed it.

The judiciary committee is expected to vote on the bill in the coming weeks.

At issue in this recurring debate are two different questions: first, should victims of heinous crimes get closure by having their perpetrator sentenced to death?  Secondly, should the death penalty, which is flawed because of racism and other factors, be abolished?

Connecticut has the largest disparity in its prison system, which correlates to its academic achievement gap. Currently, 60 percent of people on death row are black, according to a state report.  In some urban school districts, close to 60 percent of its high school students drop out.

Despite that, some lawmakers say, Connecticut is not Texas, where hundreds are on death row. In Connecticut there are ten men on death row, and only one has been executed. That was Michael Ross in 2005.

Upon hearing this, Scheck said some lawmakers should rethink their position on the death penalty because humans are flawed and can make mistakes. He argued that by eliminating the death penalty, the state would prevent an innocent person from being sentenced to death row.

“It’s hubris to think it can’t happen here,” Scheck said to the committee. “It can.”

Judiciary Chair Sen. Eric Coleman(D-Bloomfield, Hartford, Windsor) pointed out that it has happened in Connecticut.

Three high-profiled cases in which several men were on death row and were later proven innocent are James Tillman, who served 18 years before DNA proved him innocent in 2007. Miguel Roman spent 20 years before being freed in 2009. And Kenneth Ireland spent 21 years on death row before being released in 2009.

“The fallibility of the justice system is clear,” Coleman said.

Ray Krone agreed. He was an Air Force veteran convicted of killing a woman in Arizona. He spent 10 years in prison. After a DNA test proved his innocence, he was released from death row in April 2002.

“I’m here to tell you those mistakes are going to happen,” said Krone to the committee.

At least one lawmaker pointed out that no one could say that the 10 on the state’s death row are innocent. And others wanted to factor in a poll that says 76 percent of Connecticut residents prefer the death penalty.

Rep. Alfred Adinolfi, (R-Cheshire) is a supporter of the death penalty. He said the cost of having the death penalty in place should not be a factor in justice. And the committee should weigh public sentiment expressed in a recent Quinnipiac poll.

Scheck pointed out the flaw in using a poll to factor into this contentious debate. Poll questions, he said, are sometimes skewed to elicit certain responses.

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