Connecticut’s highest court overturns death penalty, says it’s unconstitutional

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HARTFORD — Three years after Connecticut abolished the death penalty for any future crimes, the state's highest court on Thursday spared the lives of all 11 men who were already on death row when the law took effect, saying it would be unconstitutional to execute them.

The ruling comes in response to an appeal from Eduardo Santiago, whose attorneys had argued that any execution carried out after the initial death penalty 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 Connecticut Supreme Court, in a 4-3 ruling, agreed with his position.

"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," Justice Richard Palmer wrote 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."

The ruling means the 11 men on the state's death row will no longer be subject to execution orders. Those inmates include Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, who were sentenced to die for killing Jennifer Petit and her two daughters, Hayley and Michaela, in the 2007 home invasion in Cheshire.

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.

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 abolished the death penalty in any future cases.

"When the legislature says we don't want to take anybody else's life and then they draw a line," attorney Jim Bergenn, of Shipman & Goodwin, said. "You really can't rationally articulate why people after versus before for the identical crime get saved."

Assistant public defender Mark Rademacher argued before the Connecticut Supreme Court that 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.

Gov. Malloy released a statement on the ruling:

“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.  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.

In the last 54 years, Connecticut has only executed two inmates, both of whom volunteered for the execution.  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.

Capital punishment is a difficult issue that is deeply personal for many 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.

Everyone arrives at their position on this difficult issue on their own terms, and everyone should have respect for differing opinions on what is a difficult and moral issue for both sides.

Today is a somber day where our focus should not be on the 11 men sitting on death row, but with their victims and those surviving families members.  My thoughts and prayers are with them during what must be a difficult day.”