A push to abolish Connecticut's death penalty is one step closer to becoming a reality after clearing a key legislative hurdle in the state Senate early Thursday morning.
State senators voted 20-16 in favor of a death penalty repeal bill after about 11 hours of impassioned floor debate.
Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, said he was not surprised by the bill's passage in the Senate. He said vote turned out exactly as he had expected.
"I think it is a pivotal step," he said. "It moves us towards a more enlightened posture on the issue and puts us more in line with other New England states."
The legislation would eliminate capital punishment for all future cases, but would not directly affect sentences of the 11 inmates currently on Connecticut's death row. Many officials insisted on that as a condition of their support for repeal in a state where two men were recently sentenced to death in a brutal, highly publicized 2007 home invasion.
The repeal bill would replace the death penalty for future cases with a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of release. Additionally, the bill renames the capital felony charge as, "murder with special circumstances." The charge would be reserved for individuals convicted of murdering two or more people at the same time, a person under age 16 or a person he or she has kidnapped, among other scenarios.
A Democratic amendment to the bill, which passed the Senate, would also require that inmates convicted under this new charge be subject to harsh prison conditions that mirror those which current death row prisoners face.
It would require separate inmate housing, allow only non-contact visitation and mandate cell movement every 90 days. The amendment also calls for weekly cell searches, continuous monitoring when outside of a cell and no work assignments outside of the housing unit.
"This is a severe and certain punishment. This does almost exactly mirror the conditions for those prisoners ondeath row," Senate President Donald Williams Jr. said.
Despite proposing multiple bill amendments during the lengthy debate that ultimately failed to garner enough support, Senate Republicans found success in passing a bipartisan proposal that clarifies the repeal legislation is only to affect future cases.
Lawmakers were poised to take up death penalty repeal legislation last year, but decided not to hold a vote in the Senate after some senators voiced concern about taking action when the second of two suspects in a 2007 deadly home invasion in Cheshire had yet to be convicted.
Now that both men have been sentenced to death, some lawmakers who previously opposed the penalty have shifted their support.
Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, who opposed the bill last year following the home invasion case'sdeath penalty phase, voted to support the repeal in the Senate.
"I cannot stand the thought of being responsible for somebody being falsely accused and facing thedeath penalty," she said. "For me, this is a moral issue and realizing that mistakes are obviously made."
Opponents of the bill largely dismissed claims that the death penalty is flawed and subject to mistakes. Instead, they predicted the repeal will be the basis for numerous legal appeals by lawyers for death row inmates.
During the Senate debate on the bill, opponents raised questions on the bill's constitutionality, particularly in the appeals process that is expected to occur for current death row inmates if the punishment is abolished.
"We've now crafted something for political purposes in order to carve out those 11 people so we can make it work," said Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven.
"What I do know is that the appeals won't stop. What I do know is that the legal process will continue and be lengthy even after the death penalty is repealed, it will just be different arguments made in the appeal," he said.
Connecticut has carried out only one execution in 51 years, when serial killer Michael Ross was administered lethal injection in 2005.
Executions nationwide have decreased steadily since they hit an all-time high of 98 executions in 1999 and have averaged at 44 a year since 2007, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.