State Supreme Court overturns death penalty in Connecticut - WFSB 3 Connecticut

State Supreme Court overturns death penalty in Connecticut

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Connecticut Supreme Court (WFSB) Connecticut Supreme Court (WFSB)

The Connecticut Supreme Court will spare the lives of 11 men on death row after a ruling on Thursday made the death penalty unconstitutional in the state. 

The Supreme Court ruled in 4-3 vote that capital punishment is illegal because it can considered cruel and unusual punishment. 

That means the 11 men on the state's death row would no longer be subject to execution orders. Those inmates include Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, who were sentenced to die for killing a mother and her two daughters in a 2007 home invasion in Cheshire.

The state had passed a law in April 2012 to repeal the death penalty only for future crimes.

“In 2012, Connecticut joined 16 other states and the majority of the industrialized world in replacing capital punishment with the punishment of life in prison without the possibility of parole," said Gov. Dannel Malloy. "Since then, two additional states have abolished capital punishment. When Connecticut’s law was passed, it did not apply to the 11 inmates currently serving on death row.  We will continue to look to the judicial system for additional guidance on this rule.  But it’s clear that those currently serving on death row will serve the rest of their life in a Department of Corrections facility with no possibility of ever obtaining freedom."

Malloy said on a national basis, “the average appeal cost is in excess of $2 million.”

The ruling comes in an appeal from Eduardo Santiago, whose attorneys had argued that any execution carried out after repeal would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Santiago faced the possibility of lethal injection for a 2000 murder-for-hire killing in West Hartford.

The repeal eliminated the death penalty while setting life in prison without the possibility of release as the punishment for crimes formerly considered capital offenses.

It was passed after Komisarjevsky and Hayes were sentenced to lethal injection for killing a mother and her two daughters in a 2007 home invasion in Cheshire that made national headlines.

Santiago was sentenced to lethal injection in 2005 for the murder-for-hire killing of 45-year-old Joseph Niwinski. But the state Supreme Court overturned the death sentence and ordered a new penalty phase in 2012, saying the trial judge wrongly withheld key evidence from the jury regarding the severe abuse Santiago suffered while growing up.

The ruling came just weeks after lawmakers passed the death-penalty repeal.

Assistant Public Defender Mark Rademacher argued any new death sentence would violate Santiago's constitutional rights to equal protection and due process. He said it would be wrong for some people to face the death penalty while others face life in prison for similar murders.

He told the court that Connecticut had declared its opposition to the death penalty and it wouldn't make sense to execute anybody now.

Senior Assistant State's Attorney Harry Weller had argued there were no constitutional problems with the new law, and death-row inmates simply face a penalty under the statute that was in effect when they were convicted. He also argued that the court could not repeal just part of the new law.

Connecticut has had just one execution since 1960. Serial killer Michael Ross was put to death 2005 after winning a legal fight to end his appeals.

“In the last 54 years, Connecticut has only executed two inmates, both of whom volunteered for the execution," Malloy said. "Many on death row are able to take advantage of endless appeals that cost the taxpayers millions of dollars, and give those convicted killers an undeserved platform for public attention."

Dr. William Petit, who survived after his family was brutally attacked, released a statement on Thursday.

"Regarding today's opinion released by the Connecticut Supreme Court on the death penalty in Connecticut, 'The dissenting justices clearly state how the four members of the majority have disregarded keystones of our governmental structure such as the separation of powers and the role of judicial precedent to reach the decision they hand down today. The death penalty and its application is a highly charged topic with profound emotional impact, particularly on the victims and their loved ones. Justice Espinosa, in her dissent especially, forcefully and compassionately recognizes that devastating impact'."

Petit's wife Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters, Hayley and Michaela were murdered in their Cheshire home in 2007 following a home invasion.

The three women were killed when two men, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, broke into their home, assaulted and beat the women and then set the home on fire.

Malloy called capital punishment a difficult issue for Connecticut residents. 

"I arrived at my opposition to capital punishment after careful thought and through many years of experience in the criminal justice system, first as a prosecutor and then as an attorney and public servant," he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union agreed with Malloy.

“We filed a brief that said it would be unfair to pick an arbitrary date ‎and determine that the same crime before or after has severely different consequences,” said David McGuire with the ACLU of Connecticut.

McGuire said Thursday’s ruling “is the right decision.”

“The way that the death penalty is carried out is unfair,” McGuire said.

However, not everyone supports the repeal of the death penalty. Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano (R-North Haven) said the state’s Supreme Court “stepped way out of line and wrongfully took on the role of policymakers.”

“If the court rejected the death penalty repeal legislation based on an argument that it violated equal protection by creating a separate class of citizens, the remedy should rightly be to strike it down, which would leave us with the death penalty intact  per prior law. Instead, the activist court chose to act as policymaker and expand the repeal beyond what was approved by state lawmakers. I agree with Justice Espinosa’s dissent. This court has overstepped its constitutional obligations and allowed personal interpretations of what some may think are just and fair to overshadow the law as defined and enacted by the people,” Fasano said in a statement on Thursday.

Fasano said that many lawmakers would not have voted in favor of repealing the death penalty “if the legislation was retroactive.”

“I, alongside Sen. John McKinney, warned that this would happen when we voted against this legislation. But warnings were ignored as Democrat leaders assured lawmakers on the fence that the legislation repealing the death penalty would be prospective only,” Fasano said.

According to the ACLU, these death row inmates will have to be sentenced again to life in prison within the courts.

“The way our death penalty works and a lot of others was that people would sit on death row for years on end not knowing what was going to happen,” McGuire said. “That itself is cruel and unusual punishment.”

Eyewitness News did reach out to the state's attorney, but they said they declined to comment. The state's attorney said they were still reviewing the decision. 

The governor said the day should not be about the 11 men sitting on death row, but the victims and their surviving family members.

To view photos of the people on death row on your mobile device, click here

To read statements about the decision, click here

Copyright 2015 WFSB (Meredith Corporation). The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved.