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Connecticut Supreme Court: Death Penalty ‘Incompatible with Contemporary Standards of Decency’

The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled the death penalty was unconstitutional. It found the “death penalty system” did not abide by the “freedom from cruel and unusual punishment,” and determined any “future executions” would present a risk of wrongly executing an innocent person.

The decision did not only condemn the system in Connecticut but wholly repudiated the death penalty system as it is imposed against Americans throughout the country.

Connecticut has had a near-total moratorium on executions since the death penalty was re-enacted on September 30, 1973. Serial killer Michael Ross was executed in 2005 for killing four Connecticut women the 1980s. When that happened, it was the first execution in the New England states in 40 years.

In 2012, the state legislature passed a prospective-only repeal of the death penalty. Eduardo Santiago, who shot and killed a man in December 2000, challenged the arbitrariness and cruel and unusual nature of executing offenders, who committed crimes before April 25, 2012, the date Connecticut abolished capital punishment.

“Following its prospective abolition,” the state supreme court ruled [PDF], “this state’s death penalty no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose. For those 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.”

Justice Richard N. Palmer wrote, “In prospectively abolishing the death penalty, the legislature did not simply express the will of the people that it no longer makes sense to maintain the costly and unsatisfying charade of a capital punishment scheme in which no one ever receives the ultimate punishment.” The repeal also “held a mirror up to Connecticut’s long, troubled history with capital punishment.”

This history included the “steady replacement by more progressive forms of punishment,” the “freakishness with which the sentence of death” was imposed, the “rarity with which” it was carried out, and the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic biases, which were inherent in the “discretionary death penalty system.”

The ruling, which was more than 70 pages, featured a comprehensive history of the death penalty in Connecticut.

“The colonialists’ commitment to Mosaic eye for an eye justice had been grounded not only in their religious convictions, but also in the fact that they lacked any viable alternatives to execution,” Palmer recounted. “That changed with the advent of modern correctional facilities. Although one dozen capital crimes remained on the books through the end of the eighteenth century, after Newgate opened in East Granby in 1773, no one was executed in Connecticut for any crime other than homicide or rape.”

It also went into detail on why the death penalty violated the “state constitutional ban on excessive and disproportionate punishment.”

Quoting Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski:

We have little more than an illusion of a death penalty in this country. To be sure, we have capital trials; we have convictions and death sentences imposed; we have endless and massively costly reviews by the state and federal courts; and we do have a small number of people executed each year. But the number of executions compared to the number of people who have been sentenced to death is minuscule, and the gap is widening every year. Whatever purposes the death penalty is said to serve—deterrence, retribution, assuaging the pain suffered by victims’ families—these purposes are not served by the system as it now operates.

As Palmer noted, “Social scientists repeatedly have confirmed that the risk of capital punishment falls disproportionately on people of color and other disadvantaged groups. Meanwhile, nationally, the number of executions and the number of states that allow the death penalty continue to decline, and convicted capital felons in this state remain on death row for decades with every likelihood that they will not be executed for many years to come.”

Yet, more significantly, the judge called attention to “regional disparities” and offered an overview of the current state of the death penalty in the United States.

“Of approximately 1400 executions carried out nationwide since 1976, nearly two-thirds have been performed in just five states, and Texas alone accounts for more than 37 percent of the total,” Palmer explained. And, since 1972, when the Supreme Court issued a decision on the death penalty, “ten states have accounted for 83 percent” of executions.

“The geographic concentration of those executions is remarkable. The thirteen states that comprised the Confederacy have carried out more than 75 percent of the nation’s executions over the past four decades. Adding in Oklahoma and Arizona—not yet states at the time of the civil war—brings the total to nearly 90 percent. In stark contrast, the six New England states have carried out a combined total one execution since 1976.”

Ross was the only execution in the New England states in the new millennium, and New Hampshire is the only New England state, where new death sentences may be imposed. However, New Hampshire has not executed anyone since 1939 and does not have an “operational death chamber.”

All of which points to the death penalty as a part of America’s legacy of slavery and a remaining component of institutional racism, which remains particularly entrenched in the southern part of the United States.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."