Thursday, February 10, 2011

A false promise

From yesterday's Hartford Courant blog post, "Death penalty repeal efforts focus on the impact on victims' families":

Dozens of murder victims' families have signed a letter calling on lawmakers to repeal the state's death penalty.

"In Connecticut, the death penalty is a false promise that goes unfulfilled, leaving victims' families frustrated and angry,'' states the letter signed by 76 mothers, brothers, daughters, and in-laws of murder victims. "And as the state hangs on to this broken system, it wastes millions of dollars that could go toward much needed victims' services.''

Instead of building a case that the death penalty constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment," or asserting that the state should not be in the business of killing -- even in the name of justice -- or that mistakes can be made and innocent people could be put to death, repeal proponents gathered for a press conference at the Legislative Office Building this morning focused on the impact the death penalty has on victims' families.

"The death penalty ensnares people in the criminal justice system where mandatory appeals, constitutional challenges and never-ending media attention result in notoriety for the murderer and years of suffering and uncertainty for the families left behind,'' said Gail Canzano, a psychologist from West Hartford whose brother-in-law was murdered in 1999. She was one of dozens of family members who attended the press conference; many of them brought framed portraits of their slain loved ones.

State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, the New Haven Democrat leading the repeal effort in the legislature, says he is confident a bill will pass this session, though the margin may be slimmer than the 90 to 56 vote in the House in favor of repeal in 2009. (That year, the Senate also voted in support of repeal, but then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed the bill.)

Changes in the make-up of the General Assembly aren't the only factor that could make it harder to pass a repeal bill. Another issue that could complicate the picture: the looming trial of Joshua Komisarjevsky, one of two men accused of killing Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Hayley and Michaela, in their Cheshire home. Jury selection is scheduled to begin March 14; Holder-Winfield said he expects a Judiciary Committee public hearing on the repeal bill to be held in mid-March, although not date has been set.

The victims at this morning's press conference expressed profound sympathy for Dr. William Petit, the lone survivor of the home invasion, who spoke in favor of the death penalty in the past.

"The entire state was traumatized by those murders and the entire state, all of us, our hearts break for that man and his family,'' Canzano said. "I am so sorry we were not able to abolish capital punishment before those murders in Cheshire happened...we watched what that trial did to those elderly parents, we watched Dr. Petit weep in the courtroom...I can only say I am so sorry Dr. Petit has to go through this...they will go through appeals for decades. I think that they will never see these murders executed.''

As heinous as the Petit murders were, advocates for repeal of the death penalty said all murders are horrific and all family members suffer.

"Every murder is heinous, no one murder is worse than any other,'' said George Kain, an associate professor of justice and law administration at Western Connecticut State University. "Yet the truth is that we operate in the criminal justice system where some murders are in fact judged to be crueler and somehow are more special than other murders."

Michael C. Culhane, the chief lobbyist for the Catholic Church in Connecticut, said his heart bleeds for Dr. Petit and his family. But the church will actively work to support the repeal effort. "The church's position is grounded in its firm belief in the sanctity of life, as we view life as being sacred from conception to natural death."

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