Repeal of death penalty again a focus

Norwalker Joe Santo has always retained a cut-and-dry view on crime and punishment, and the 1997 murder of Santo’s 13-year-old cousin only served to strengthen his convictions.

Todd Rizzo is currently on death row for bludgeoning Santo’s 13-year-old cousin Stanley Edwards IV to death with a sledgehammer in Waterbury, and Santo says Rizzo and the eight other men awaiting execution on Connecticut’s death row are deserving of their fate.

“If a person is guilty of a pre-meditated murder, if he planned it out and executed it, he should be executed,” said Santo, a former state senator.

State legislators are considering repealing the death penalty. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said he would sign legislation abolishing the state’s death penalty. He said this legislation would have no affect the fate of those who are currently on death row or pending death penalty cases.

Ten men are currently on death row in the state, and one of the inmates, 64-year-old double murderer Robert Breton, has awaited execution since 1989. Connecticut has executed just one death row prisoner — serial rapist-murderer Michael Ross — in the past four-and-a-half decades.

Convicted triple-murderer Christopher DiMeo and Joshua Komisarjevsky, who is charged with killing three members of the Petit family in a 2007 home invasion in Cheshire, may soon join the state’s ten death row inmates, as both men have pending capital felony cases.

Many opponents of the death penalty point out that housing death row inmates costs significantly more than making the prisoners serve life without parole in general population.

Some family members of murder victims told lawmakers at a Capital hill news conference on Feb. 9 that they feel differently about the death penalty than Dr. William Petit, whose wife and two daughters were killed in the Cheshire home invasion.

Petit has been a staunch proponent for keeping the state’s capital punishment law.

The family members are voicing support for repealing the state’s death penalty, saying the lengthy and difficult legal process can be emotionally punishing for the families.

Having sat through some of Rizzo’s court dates, Santo knows the judicial process can be frustrating for victims’ families. Rizzo has continually tried to have his death sentence lowered to life in prison, citing the fact that he was just 18-years-old at the time of the murder.

Santo remembers sitting ten feet away from Rizzo in a Waterbury courtroom, and he recalls the anger he felt when Rizzo’s lawyer requested that the court marshals remove the shackles from his client’s ankles.

“It was really weird looking at him,” he said. “He didn’t know who I was. He looked like anyone else, even though he was a murderer. I was upset that he was shackled, and his lawyer argued to take the shackles off.”

Santo empathizes with the family members of the men serving death sentences.

“I feel for them,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to know how they feel. If it were my son or daughter that committed a murder and they were sentenced to death, I’d do anything I could to save them.”

Still, Santo says life sentences are unfitting as punishment for the brutal crimes committed by the convicted murderers who are currently on death row.

“I don’t look at prison as rehabilitation,” he said. “I look at it as punishment. The death penalty is a form of punishment. For society, does it have a redeeming value? I don’t know.”

Darien resident Robert Perske, an advocate for the mentally handicapped in the criminal justice system, is a bit guarded about his opinion on the death penalty, as he often works on cases that go before judges who are death penalty advocates.

Perske said when he is unable to effectively advocate for persons with mental disabilities, he may join an anti-death penalty group.

“In my heart of hearts, I think the death penalty serves no real purpose,” he said.

Perske, who began working with the mentally handicapped in 1959, has helped exonerate 75 mentally handicapped persons who falsely confessed to rapes and murders. Six of the persons were condemned to death due to the serious nature of the crime for which they were convicted.

“I’ve had guys saying, ‘At the police station, you don’t waive at wrongs. You waive at the rights,'” he said.

Perske conducted more than 30 years of research on Joe Arridy, a wrongfully convicted mentally handicapped man who was executed in 1939. His findings are chronicled in the book Deadly Innocence, and he played a major role in outgoing Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter’s posthumous pardon of Arridy in January of this year.

Executions of the mentally handicapped have been prevented through advancements in interrogation techniques and the 2002 Supreme Court case Atkins vs. Virginia, in which the justices ruled that executing the mentally handicapped violates the Eighth Amendment, according to Perske.

Despite his work in the criminal justice system, Perske’s take on the death penalty is not rooted in his experiences with wrongfully convicted persons. When he explains his opinion on the death penalty, he tries to conjure the pain he would incur if someone murdered his wife.

“Would I need revenge? Would I need to take a human life?” asks Perske. “Would it bring her back? Would it solve anything? The answer is no.”

STEVE KOBAK

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