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Conn. Supreme Court Rules Death Penalty Unconstitutional

(Connecticut Department of Correction via AP, File)

Connecticut’s Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment, saying it goes against that state’s constitution, in a decision that could have national implications.

A Connecticut law got rid of the death penalty in 2012, but didn’t make it retroactive. 11 people still faced execution until the decision.

David McGuire, Legislative and Policy Director of the Connecticut ACLU, said the decision could set a precedent for future states debating the death penalty in court.

"This is the first court in the country to have such a decision and base it partially on the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities in the execution of the death penalty," he said.

42 percent of people on death row in 2013 were black, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Black people make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population.

The ruling comes in an appeal from Eduardo Santiago, whose attorneys had argued that any execution carried out after repeal would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Santiago faced the possibility of lethal injection for a 2000 murder-for-hire killing in West Hartford.

"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."

3 judges out of 8 dissented. They said the decision was overreaching because it ignored stipulations on the 2012 law.

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 a mother and her two daughters in a 2007 home invasion in Cheshire.

The repeal had 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 passed the death penalty repeal.

Assistant Public Defender Mark Rademacher argued 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.

This report contains information from the Associated Press.

The Associated Press is one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering, supplying a steady stream of news to its members, international subscribers and commercial customers. AP is neither privately owned nor government-funded; instead, it's a not-for-profit news cooperative owned by its American newspaper and broadcast members.
Kathie is a former editor at WSHU.