Connecticut repeals death penalty, another indication of the inevitable end to capital punishment in the US

The Connecticut legislature has voted to repeal the state’s death penalty law.  The Senate voted 20 to 16 to repeal on April 5, and the House passed the repeal measure by a vote of 86 to 62 on April 12.  Governor Dannel Maloy, who promised as a candidate for governor to sign repeal legislation if elected, has made it clear that he will sign the bill into law.

Malloy told Rachel Maddow on her show that a person prosecuted in one city in Connecticut was seven times more likely to receive the death penalty than if  tried elsewhere. Moreover, for all the cost in both money and emotional damage to all participants in the process from the victims’ families to the judges, lawyers, witnesses, family members of the accused and prison employees of prisons, very few people are actually executed in any state except Texas.

Connecticut is the fifth state that has recently abandoned capital punishment.  New Jersey repealed its capital punishment statute in 2007, New Mexico in 2009 and Illinois in 2011.  The New York Court of Appeals declared that state’s death penalty law unconstitutional in 2007 and there have been no efforts to reinstate it.

Juries are rejecting the death penalty too.  Only 78 persons were sentenced to death in 2011, down from over 300 in the 1990s.

Governor Malloy also pointed out that nearly every other industrialized nation has abandoned capital punishment. “It is applied in our nation even this day, this year in an arbitrary capricious fashion – people of color are much more likely to receive the death penalty than other groups,” Malloy said.

The governor said the first person put to death in Connecticut was accused of being a witch and “we have made other mistakes, I believe. But most importantly we are violating the Supreme Court’s decision that originally outlawed the death penalty because we were doing it in an arbitrary and capricious fashion.”

There is increasing agreement across the country that the death penalty costs to much, takes too long, revictimizes the victims, and does not serve law enforcement purposes but diverts personnel and resources from other important government obligations, such as education.  These were essentially the findings of a New Jersey Commission on the Death Penalty, made up of representatives of law enforcement, victims’ advocacy groups, the legislature and others.  The Commission’s report led to repeal in New Jersey.

There is also growing recognition that the death penalty is a relic of a more primitive time, when cutting of limbs or fingers, branding, lashing and putting people in stocks.  It is also a relic of slavery, Jim Crow justice, and segregation and part of the continuing discrimination against people of color in the criminal justice system.

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said in December, 2011 that the death penalty is not working in California, which has the largest death row in the country with over 700 condemned inmates.  Cantil-Sakauye, a Republican former prosecutor appointed to the California Supreme Court by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said California’s death penalty requires “structural change and we don’t have the money to create the kind of change that is needed.  She said the question was not whether one believed in the death penalty, but “the greater question is its effectiveness and given the choices we face in California, should we have a merit-based discussion on its effectiveness and costs?”

Californians will decide in a referendum in November whether to repeal that state’s death penalty. The State spends $184 million per year on the largest and costliest death penalty system in the country.  It has carried out only 13 executions since adoption of its death penalty statute in 1978.

Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye’s predecessor, retired Chief Justice Ronald M. George, a former prosecutor who argued in support of the state’s death penalty before the U.S. Supreme Court, concluded in his later years on the California Supreme Court that the system was “dysfunctional.”

Justice Paul Pfiefer of the Ohio Supreme Court, who helped write the state’s death penalty statute as a legislator in 1981, told state lawmakers in December, 2011 that “Ohio is no longer well served by our death-penalty statute. It should be repealed.” He said that “the death penalty in Ohio has become … a death lottery. The application is hit or miss depending on where you happen to commit the crime and the attitude of the prosecutor in that county.”  Terry Collins, a former director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections who presided over the execution of 33 men from 2001 to 2010, called the death penalty “expensive, often inefficient and always time-consuming.”

Gerald Kogan, former Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court, who also served as a prosecutor and trial judge, expressed concerns after leaving the Court about Florida’s death penalty system.  “Florida’s system of capital punishment is broken,” he wrote in the St. Petersburg Times in 2008.  One of Kogan’s major concerns was the quality of representation provided to those facing the death penalty:

Mistakes in identification and prosecution of defendants are compounded by Florida’s woefully inadequate system of providing those accused of capital crimes with representation at trial. The bar for inclusion in Florida’s Capital Collateral Registry — a list of attorneys available to try capital cases — is set embarrassingly low, and requires very little of participating attorneys. The inadequate standards fall far short of the bare minimum qualifications established by the American Bar Association. Current Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul G. Cantero III recently testified before the Florida Commission on Capital Cases that the representation provided by these attorneys is “some of the worst lawyering” he has ever seen.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber announced on Nov. 22, 2011, that he will not allow the execution of any death row inmate while he is in office. The governor said the death penalty is morally wrong and unjustly administered.

Gov. Kitzhaber

“I am convinced we can find a better solution that keeps society safe, supports the victims of crime and their families and reflects Oregon values,” he stated in a written statement. “I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am Governor.”

Kitzhaber, who previously served two terms as governor from 1995 to 2003, allowed two executions in his first term.  “I have regretted those choices ever since,” the governor stated. “Both because of my own deep personal convictions about capital punishment and also because in practice, Oregon has an expensive and unworkable system that fails to meet basic standards of justice.”

The death penalty is not handed down fairly – some inmates on death row have committed similar crimes as those who are serving life sentences, he said.   In addition, Oregon only executes those who give up their appeals and volunteer for execution, Kitzhaber said, calling the state’s system “a perversion of justice.  Oregon is one of seven states that allow the death penalty but have not used it in more than a decade.

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