After a vote in its Senate on Thursday, Connecticut is set to end the death penalty, although those currently on death row will still face execution. The state would become the 17th state to do so, adding momentum to a welcome movement to end capital punishment in the United States.
Since 2007, the death penalty has been abolished in four states (New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Illinois). In November, California voters will be asked in a ballot measure to end state executions. Even in states that still allow the practice, the number of state-sanctioned killings has dropped by about half since 1999.
The death penalty debate in Hartford has been useful to understand why more states are questioning the practice. Practical concerns about implementing capital punishment have become more common, such as the high number of death-row inmates in the US found to be innocent over the past decade. Ultimately, however, the issue still remains a moral one about society’s need to embrace the sanctity of life.
A key player in the Connecticut debate was Gov. Dannel Malloy, a former prosecutor in New York City who took office last year favoring repeal of the death penalty. While he has moral concerns, his key argument is that the death penalty is not “workable.”
Lengthy appeals mean few of those convicted are executed. The cost for the state of defending a conviction in an appeal is high and detracts from other law enforcement. An air of unfairness, uncertainty, and unevenness pervades the process. The infrequency of executions, mainly due to delays, also prevents the death penalty from acting as a deterrent to crime (if it does at all).
One sign that Connecticut legislators did not put moral concerns first is the fact that the measure would let stand death penalty sentences for those already convicted. A major reason for the amendment is lingering public anger over a gruesome 2007 murder of a family in Cheshire by two killers. It’s unclear whether the courts will consider this provision to be constitutional. A 2009 repeal of the death penalty in New Mexico had a similar measure that a court upheld.
Connecticut is right to point to a fallible justice system as a reason to eliminate capital punishment. But if more states are to be won over, the argument must continue to be made that executions done in the name of retribution rely on the same kind of vengeance as the killer’s. They only perpetuate the notion of eye-for-an-eye justice. There can be no justice and consolation in treating murderers the same way as they treated their victims.
A society’s order rests on its ability to uphold the sanctity of life and perpetuate it. Ending the death penalty cannot just be a cost-benefit analysis of its effectiveness.