Connecticut solidifies abolition of capital punishment

The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled Thursday by a 5-to-2 majority to uphold its decision of last August, in which it supported the state's 2012 abolition of the death penalty and applied it retroactively to those still sitting on death row.

Jason Reed/Reuters/File
Protesters calling for an end to the death penalty unfurl a banner before police arrest them outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 17, 2007. Supreme Court justices in Connecticut upheld a previous ruling abolishing the death penalty, including for prisoners previously sentenced to death.

Connecticut's Supreme Court upheld a ruling Thursday that declares unconstitutional the state's death penalty and abolishes capital punishment.

In reaffirming an earlier ruling, which was made in August of last year, the justices also overturned death sentences imposed on Russell Peeler Jr., which prosecutors were attempting to revive.

The latest decision by Connecticut's highest court came with a 5-to-2 majority, adding one more to the number opposing the death penalty, August's decision having been made with a margin of just one.

"Just as my personal beliefs cannot drive my decision-making, I feel bound by the doctrine of stare decisis [stand by things decided] in this case for one simple reason – my respect for the rule of law," wrote Chief Justice Chase Rogers, who in August voted to retain the death penalty, but switched sides in Thursday's ruling.

"To reverse an important constitutional issue within a period of less than one year solely because of a change in justices on the panel that is charged with deciding the issue, in my opinion, would raise legitimate concerns by the people we serve about the court's integrity and the rule of law in the state of Connecticut."

The cases bringing the issue to the Supreme Court on both occasions represented two of 11 death row inmates excluded by a 2012 law passed by Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy and the state legislature that abolished capital punishment. But that law did not apply retroactively, so those already on death row were still eligible for execution.

That exclusion was largely because of the abhorrence with which many lawmakers viewed the case of Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, convicted in the highly publicized murders of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters in a 2007 home invasion.

But in the landmark case of last year, the justice's essentially declared that they felt unable to support a position allowing the execution of past offenders, when such a punishment had been deemed unconstitutional going forward.

"Upon careful consideration of the defendant's claims in light of the governing constitutional principles and Connecticut's unique historical and legal landscape, we are persuaded that, following its prospective abolition, this state's death penalty no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose," wrote Justice Richard Palmer for the majority.

"For these reasons, execution of those offenders who committed capital felonies prior to April, 25, 2012, would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment."

Following this second affirmation of the application of Connecticut's 2012 law to past cases, Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane said that prosecutors would now begin the process of re-sentencing those remaining on death row to life in prison without the possibility of release.

"These are deeply personal and moral issues that we as a society are facing and the court has once again ruled on today," said Governor Malloy. "Our focus today should not be on those currently sitting on death row, but with their victims and those surviving family members."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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