A decent time having elapsed, sort of, since two multiple murderers had been sentenced to death for having 1) beaten with a baseball bat a husband of a family in Cheshire, 2) forced the husband’s wife to travel to a bank to withdraw funds for the two murderers, 3) raped the wife and one of the daughters, 4) bound the daughters to their beds, 5) set fire to the house, murdering the daughters and their mother, anti-death penalty legislators in the General Assembly are planning once again to file a bill that would prospectively abolish the death penalty, replacing it with a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole. Prospective abolition would leave intact the 11 death penalty sentences of the murderers awaiting justice on Connecticut’s death row.
Such a bill would leave intact the legislature’s power to commute death penalty sentences to life in prison at any time after the General Assembly had abolished the death penalty. Unlike most states, the pardon power in Connecticut is invested in the legislature rather the governor’s office (McLaughlin v. Bronson, 206 Conn. 267 (1988), citing Palka v. Walker, 124 Conn. 121 (1938)). The General Assembly exercised this power until it created the Board of Pardons in 1883. Although the General Assembly had delegated its power of pardon to a board, it never-the-less retains pardon powers; and since the power to commute is considered a part of the pardon power (Attorney General’s Opinion 96-10, citing 59 Am.Jur.2d, Pardon and Parole § 23), it would appear that the legislature may commute death sentences, according to an Office of Legislative Research report.
The anti-death penalty legislators did succeed in passing an abolition bill during the administration of former Republican Governor Jodi Rell, but the governor disappointed them by vetoing it. Current Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy has pledged to sign such a bill should it cross his desk. Encouraged by the governor’s pledge, anti-death penalty proponents in the General Assembly reintroduced their bill after Mr. Malloy’s installation as governor, an effort doomed by two key Democratic legislators one of whom, state Senator Edith Prague, withdrew her support for the measure after having had a conversation with Dr. William Petit, the father of the Cheshire murder victims.
At a time when a jury had convicted and sentenced to death only one of the two Cheshire murderers, the trial of the second murderer being in process, Mrs. Prague emerged from her conversation with Dr. Petit firmly convinced that both murderers should suffer the penalties prescribed for them by a jury of their peers. She expressed herself on this point in rather unforgiving language: “They should bypass the trial and take that second animal and hang him by his penis from a tree out in the middle of Main Street.” At the same time, Mrs. Prague indicated she might support future efforts to abolish the death penalty. But she found it difficult to look Dr. Petit in the face and “not give him something that would make his life a little easier.” The 86 year-old Mrs. Prague since then suffered a mild stroke but returned at the end of January to the General Assembly.
Democratic Senator Andrew Maynard of Stonington, meeting at the same time with Dr. Petit, followed Mrs. Prague’s lead. “It’s a toss-up,” he said, “I don’t support the death penalty broadly but I don’t support repealing it at this time. For my own personal reasons and as a matter of public policy, I don’t think it’s the right way for the state to act. But in this instance there are such mitigating circumstances, in my mind, that I could not in good conscience vote for repeal this year.” The mitigating circumstances having disappeared and the timing being better, Mr. Maynard now says “I’m inclined to support repeal.”
Even without the two wavering senators, there are, according to some head counters, enough votes in the General Assembly to pass the death penalty abolition bill.
The inevitable passage of the bill will unleash a flood of appeals that will at a minimum further delay the executions of Connecticut’s 11 death row inmates. It is almost certain that at some point in the future a Democratic dominated legislature supported by a Democratic governor, all of whom will have been instrumental in abolishing the death penalty, would be morally derelict in resisting the commutation of the death sentences of the 11 prisoners now awaiting execution on death row. The death penalty having been abolished for prospective criminals who in the future might violate Connecticut’s narrowly circumscribed rarely applied death sentence, no moral justification for the death penalty could withstand a call for the commutation of those awaiting execution authorized by a lapsed and outmoded law.