Inmates taken off of death row in Connecticut will remain that way after a decision by the State Supreme Court.
The State Supreme Court revealed its ruling Thursday morning on whether its previous decision to abolish it would be overturned or upheld:
Our conclusion that the defendant’s death sentences must be vacated as unconstitutional in light of Santiago renders moot the defendant’s other appellate claims. The judgment is reversed with respect to the imposition of two sentences of death and the case is remanded with direction to impose a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of release on each capital felony count; the judgment is affirmed in all other respects. In this opinion ROGERS, C. J., and PALMER, EVELEIGH, McDONALD and ROBINSON, Js., concurred. * May 26, 2016, the date that this decision was released as a slip opinion, is the operative date for all substantive and procedural purposes. This case originally was argued before the same panel of justices on July 10, 2014. This court granted the state’s request for supplemental argument on November 30, 2015, which was heard on January 7, 2016. 1 The facts and procedural history of the case are presented more fully in State v. Peeler, 271 Conn. 338, 343–57, 857 A.2d 808 (2004), cert. denied.
The ruling came after state abolished the death penalty for new cases in 2012. The Court said the death penalty no longer met society's evolving standards of decency.
At the time, however, it didn't apply to the 11 inmates on death row.
The State Supreme Court then ruled in Aug. 2015 to overturn the sentences for those 11 inmates.
However, prosecutors argued over the winter that the ruling shouldn't have been made before the death penalty was actually repealed.
The argument to get the death penalty overturned for death row inmates began with convicted killer Eduardo Santiago.
Santiago had his sentence overturned after a 4-3 vote from the State Supreme Court. His attorney argued that the repeal should apply to his client as well.
The arguments divided the Supreme Court. Some made it clear that they refused to vote for the repeal if it applied to convicted Cheshire home invasion killers Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes.
However, Santiago was ordered to life in prison without release for a 2000 murder-for-hire in West Hartford.
As a result, Russell Peeler, who was convicted of murdering an 8-year-old boy and his mother in Bridgeport in 1999, had also been trying to get his 2007 sentence overturned.
Eyewitness News sat down with Dr. William Petit on Thursday, who said he isn't happy about the ruling. That's because when legislators initially voted to abolish the death penalty in 2012, it was written to not include the 11 inmates currently on death row, and he thought his wife and daughter's killers would stay there.
"It's a visceral anger. You know I think the appropriate punishment for what they did and for what people on death row did is the death penalty," Petit said. "I think when they initially changed the law to prospective I thought that it probably would never happen...I don't think I actually had much of a reaction in terms of Santiago other than thinking it was a very incorrect decision."
To see the rest of the inmates who were formerly on death row, click here.
This domino effect led to the state to reconsider the appeal for all of the previous death row inmates. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional altogether.
The state said inmates were using that repeal to get off of death row, which led to Thursday's decision. The state essentially asked the State Supreme Court to overrule itself and the decision it made last year.
However, a 5-2 decision reconfirmed that the death penalty is done in Connecticut.
Officials said that while Thursday's decision technically only applies to Peeler, it does set a precedent for the other former death row inmates.
“We welcome [Thursday]’s Connecticut Supreme Court ruling, which takes the prudent step of ending the state’s failed death penalty and the possibility of any future executions," said Sheila Denion, project director for the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty. "[Thursday]’s ruling ensures that we can move beyond this flawed policy to the total abolition of capital punishment in our state.”
Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane said the Court has spoken and we respects its decision.
"The Division of Criminal Justice and I extend our deepest sympathy and condolences to the victims of these crimes and to their families," Kane said. "I also wish to express my appreciation to the dedicated professionals in the Division of Criminal Justice who have devoted so much of themselves throughout this process."
Gov. Dannel Malloy said in the last half century, Connecticut has only executed two inmates and both of them volunteered for the punishment. He acknowledged that the death penalty is an emotional issue and asked people to respect the diversity of perspectives.
"Several years ago, Connecticut joined more than a dozen 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," Malloy said. "[Thursday's] decision reaffirms what the court has already said: those currently serving on death row will serve the rest of their life in prison with no possibility of ever obtaining freedom."
Malloy said the focus should be on the victims and their families.
“This is an important affirmation, one that furthers Connecticut’s work to ensure our criminal justice system is effective and that it protects the public it serves," said Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman. "I echo Gov. Malloy’s comments – our hearts are with the victims and survivors [Thursday].”
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