Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Legislators are listening

From today's Westport (CT) Patch, "Not in Their Names: The Death Penalty":

By Cathryn J. Prince
Some families of murder victims ask the state not to speak for them. Some legislators are listening.

Calling the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment for murder victims’ families, some opponents of the practice say they want it abolished.

“I find it tremendously disturbing that the state uses the names of victims to defend its position,” said Elizabeth Brancato, whose mother was murdered on May 9, 1979. “I believe if we are sincere about wanting to help the victims we will repeal the death penalty right away.”

Other death penalty opponents agreed. They argue capital punishment indefinitely extends courtroom proceedings, leaves victims’ families adrift, and costs the state more than $4 million annually.

That’s where H.B. 5036 comes in. It proposes Connecticut replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of release. Like the last bill, this one is prospective; it will not apply to past murder trials.

Vice Chair of the Judiciary Committee Gary A. Holder-Winfield, a Democrat representing New Haven in the 94th House District, introduced the bill. State Rep. Patricia Miller, a Democrat representing part of Stamford in the 145th House District was one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

That’s problematic, said state Rep. John Hetherington a Republican representing parts of New Canaan and Wilton in the 125th House District.

“Can you imagine in the Cheshire case if one defendant gets sentenced to death and the other one doesn’t because of timing?” said Hetherington, a ranking member on the Judiciary Committee. “I don’t know if that would even be constitutional.”

Recently a group of family members pressed for repeal. The Judiciary Committee will likely hold a public hearing this spring, Holder-Winfield said.

“Our direct experiences with the criminal justice system and struggling with grief have led us all to the same conclusion: Connecticut’s death penalty fails victims’ families,” according to the letter signed by at least 75 individuals.

In 2009, the state legislature passed legislation to replace the death penalty with life sentence without the possibility of release. The Senate voted 19-17 to abolish the death penalty and the House voted 90-56. However, then Gov. Jodi Rell vetoed the bill.

Because Gov. Dannel Malloy, a former prosecutor, favors abolishing the statute, this legislature might succeed. Still the vote will be close.

Republicans favor the death penalty by an 80 percent to 12 percent margin and Democrats favor it by a 51 percent to 37 percent margin, according to a Quinnipiac University poll.

In 2009, state Sen. Toni Boucher, a Republican representing Redding, Ridgefield, Westport, Wilton and parts of Bethel, New Canaan and Weston in the 26th Senate District, voted against repeal. So did state Sen. John McKinney, a Republican representing Easton, Fairfield, Newtown and part of Weston in the 28th Senate District.

Also opposed to a repeal were Republican state Reps. John Frey, who represents Ridgefield in the 111th House District and Tony Hwang who represents parts of Fairfield and Trumbull in the 134th House District.

By contrast, state Reps. Kim Fawcett a Democrat representing parts of Fairfield and Westport in the 133rd House District, and William Tong, a Democrat representing parts of New Canaan and Stamford in the 147th House District, support repeal.

Recent high profile trials will likely affect a vote, not something that escapes Holder-Winfield or the victims’ families.

“Of course it will color things. It would be ridiculous of me to pretend otherwise,” Holder-Winfield said, adding the Cheshire home invasion trial shouldn’t be used to push an agenda.

Currently the death penalty is reserved for ‘particularly heinous murders.’ To many victims’ families that defines some murders as merely ordinary. It also creates two classes of victims — one seemingly more important.

“Every murder is heinous,” Ridgefield Police Commissioner Dr. George Kain, said. “No one murder is more heinous. We operate in a criminal justice society where some murders are judged to be crueler and somehow more special than others.”

However, Hetherington said categorizing murder is Ok.

“It appropriately punishes the more heinous crimes,” Hetherington said. “It asks whether the murder carried was more cruel, whether torture was involved. Some are more cruel than others.”

Kain, an Associate Professor of Justice and Law Administration at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, didn’t always think this way. The former probation officer once thought capital punishment made law enforcement officers and the public safer.

“We know there is a more civilized response to murder than state-sanctioned murder,” Kain said.

That response can include forgiveness.

Every day the Rev. Walter Everett, formerly of Easton, thinks about his son Scott, shot in 1987. His was one of 60 homicides that year.

Everett now speaks with his son’s killer. He learned to forgive the killer so he might start healing.

“I forgave him because otherwise what killed my son would kill me,” Everett said, adding he believes the state must redirect its resources. “The state should abolish and take the money to use for victims services.”

According to the Hartford based- Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty the state spends $4 million annually on capital punishment related issues. Instead it could spend that money on police training and victims’ services, said Ben Jones, CNADP’s Executive Director.

Connecticut and New Hampshire are the only two New England states with the death penalty. Currently 10 male inmates sit on death row at the level five, maximum security Northern Correctional Institution in Somers. Since 1973 Connecticut has had more than 4,700 murders, 14 death sentences, and one execution. The sole execution took place in 2005 after Michael Ross refused further appeals.

Gail Canzano, a clinical psychologist from West Hartford, called the death penalty injurious because repeated trials force families to constantly relive their loved one’s murder.

“Criminals could be put away and forgotten instead of becoming celebrities,” Canzano asked. “Where is the justice in that? Why do we do that to families? The death penalty doesn’t work. It’s archaic.”

Hetherington said he understands the anguish, and agreed interminable appeals are an issue.

“It kind of loses its meaning. I can understand that,” Hetherington said. “But if they try to speed the process and eliminate repeated and reduced appeals they can argue the accused wasn’t accorded his rights. It’s a real dilemma and I am not deaf to those arguments.”

According to a 2010 Quinnipiac University Poll, the majority of Nutmeg State voters support capital punishment. When presented with a choice between the death penalty or life in prison without release, 46 percent polled supported the death penalty while 41 percent supported life in prison.

Sunny Khadjavi of Shelton lives with the fact that her father’s 40-year-old murder remains unsolved.

“While I want to know more about why my father was killed, I never imagined that finding the perpetrator and enacting revenge would help me with my healing,” Khadjavi said. “The death penalty could not bring back my father.”

No comments: