Some state lawmakers are reviving a push to end Connecticut’s death penalty, hoping for an easier road this year following the conclusion of two widely publicized trials for a brutal 2007 triple slaying.
While the only survivor of the Cheshire home invasion personally lobbied legislators last year to keep the death penalty, at least one state senator who was swayed by Dr. William Petit says he is now ready to vote for repeal.
“Last year was not an appropriate time to discuss (repeal),” said Sen. Andrew Maynard, a Stonington Democrat.
Petit’s influence helped to doom last year’s bid to repeal the death penalty, which never made it to the Senate floor for a vote. Since then, a man described as the crime’s mastermind has been condemned to join his co-defendant on death row, closing the case on the attack in which Petit’s wife and two daughters were killed.
State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, a New Haven Democrat and a leading death penalty opponent, said he is working with state legislators to win their support. He said members of the joint judiciary committee plan to propose legislation sometime before a Feb. 22 deadline to introduce new bills. He said he is dedicated to working with state senators to win their support.
Death penalty opponents say there is already enough support for repeal in the House of Representatives
Columbia Sen. Edith Prague, another key Democrat who shifted her position after meeting with Petit, said she has not decided whether to support a repeal effort this session. She said she may support abolishing capital punishment if current death row inmates could be subject to life in prison with solitary confinement, but needs to look further into whether or not that would be legal.
“There’s still a lot of support for the death penalty in this state,” she said. “I’m not sure what will happen this session.”
Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who was elected in 2010, said he would sign prospective repeal legislation into law that abolishes capital punishment for all future cases and does not directly affect sentences of current death row inmates. He is the first governor in decades to oppose the death penalty. The legislature had voted to repeal it in 2009, but then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, vetoed the bill, saying she believed the death penalty was appropriate for particularly heinous crimes, such as the Cheshire home invasion.
Petit’s wife was raped and strangled. His daughters were tied to their beds with gasoline poured on or around them before their house was set on fire. Petit was beaten with a baseball bat and tied up, but managed to escape to a neighbor’s house to get help.
In December, Joshua Komisarjevsky was convicted and sentenced to death for the crime, joining his accomplice, Steven Hayes, on death row. Currently, the state has 11 inmates awaiting execution.
Rick Healey, a friend of Petit who has served as his spokesman, said he does not expect Petit to comment on the latest efforts to repeal the death penalty.
A Quinnipiac University poll in March 2011 found 67 percent of registered voters favor the death penalty, a new high for the state.
Connecticut has carried out only one execution in 51 years, when serial killer Michael Ross was administered lethal injection in 2005. Some inmates have been on death row for decades as they appeal their sentences.
Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, said he opposes repeal, and listening to Petit’s testimony in favor of the death penalty was enough to solidify his position. He said prospects for repeal legislation are unclear.
“It’s apparent this governor would sign the bill if it went to his desk, so I’m not sure what is going to happen,” he said.
While the governor supports only legislation affecting future cases, skeptics including Prague have raised concerns that the Cheshire home invasion killers could use a repeal as the basis for an appeal and possibly avoid facing capital punishment.
Some death penalty opponents continue to campaign for an all-out abolition.
Activists from the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty began lobbying efforts on opening day of the legislative session. Ben Jones, the organization’s executive director, said high energy among the African-American community and families of murder victims could help repeal the death penalty in Connecticut.
Scot Esdaile, president of the state’s branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the organization has been meeting with lawmakers on the issue.
Esdaile said the Connecticut NAACP plans to employ grass-roots efforts to spread awareness of how capital punishment affects the African-American community. “We have a large investment (in this issue,)” he said.