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Connecticut Senate votes to repeal state's death penalty

State Senators in Connecticut voted 20-16 on Thursday in favor of repealing the death penalty. WVIT's Liz Dalhem reports.

Updated at 10:00 a.m. ET: With the Connecticut Senate voting early Thursday to repeal the death penalty, the state is poised to become the fifth in five years to end the practice.

Legislative action was delayed last year amid the high-profile prosecution of a death penalty case involving a brutal home invasion that left a mother and her two daughters dead. But after a debate that stretched into the early morning hours Thursday, the Senate voted 20-16 to approve legislation that would replace the death penalty with life without parole.

“Connecticut’s criminal justice system has taken a historic step forward. In a system of justice that is no(t) perfect, we must not employ a penalty that requires perfection. The punishment of life in prison without the possibility of release makes more sense,” Senate President Donald E. Williams, Jr., a Democrat, said in a statement. “These inmates will face conditions that are similar to and in some cases more severe than conditions on death row. It is a punishment and sentence that is certain and final.”

The bill will now head to the House of Representatives, where observers say it is likely to pass. Gov. Daniel Malloy has said he would sign the legislation because it is forward looking, and not retroactive to those already sitting on death row.

Senate leadership held a press conference at the Capitol Wednesday ahead of the vote, with families of murder victims joining them. Senate Republican opponents organized their own news conference, which was attended by the lone survivor of the home invasion case in Cheshire and families of other murder victims.

“For those who say that we should execute those 11 (currently on death row) but none going further, the only way to keep that promise … is to keep our death penalty law,” Republican State Sen. John McKinney said. “I also think we need to talk about the message it sends that some who murder viciously the families in Connecticut should face the death penalty but others should not. Are we … saying that those families and the lives of those victims are somehow less important? For me, that is a wrong and terrible message to send.”

A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that the state's voters are against repealing the death penalty by a margin of 62 percent to 31 percent. A 2011 poll showed that 48 percent of those surveyed preferred the death penalty over life in prison with no chance of parole (43 percent) in first-degree murder cases.

"As we've seen in past Quinnipiac University polls, Connecticut voters still think abolishing the death penalty is a bad idea," said Douglas Schwartz, poll director. "No doubt the gruesome Cheshire murders still affect public opinion regarding convicts on death row."

AP Photo/Jessica Hill

Episcopal Bishops Laura Ahrens, left, and Bishop Ian Douglas rally at the state Capitol with religious leaders who oppose the death penalty in Hartford, Conn., on Tuesday.

'Clear trend'
If the legislation passes the House and is signed by the governor, Connecticut would be the fifth state in five years to repeal the death penalty, joining 16 others that have no capital punishment. California voters will decide in November whether to also do away with it.

“This was a courageous and historic vote, but it was also in line with a growing trend away from the death penalty around the country. Connecticut’s legislature has come to the same conclusion that other legislatures have recently made: the death penalty is too risky, too expensive, and too unfair to continue," Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), said in a statement.

A bill to repeal Connecticut's death penalty passed in 2009, but then Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed it. Last year, the bill made it through the joint House and Senate Judiciary Committee. But it died before a full Senate vote after a few senators withdrew their support because a second man charged in the Cheshire home invasion case was about to go on trial, said Ben Jones, executive director of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty.

But it is now possible to have the death penalty debate not amid the “heated nature of a capital trial," so "people are able to think about it more at a systematic level,” said Shari Silberstein, executive director of Equal Justice USA.

Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes were convicted in the 2007 Cheshire killings of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11. The girls were tied to their beds and doused in gasoline before the house was set ablaze; they died of smoke inhalation; their mother was strangled.

George Ruhe / AP

Authorities outside the home of Dr. William Petit, a noted specialist in diabetes, in Cheshire, Conn., on Monday July 23, 2007. Intruders broke into his home, held the family hostage and killed his wife and two daughters.

The lone survivor of the invasion, Dr. William A. Petit Jr., along with his sister, Johanna Petit-Chapman, oppose the repeal.

“We believe in the death penalty because we believe it is really the only true just punishment for certain heinous and depraved murders. One thing you never hear the abolitionists talk about is the victims, almost never, the forgotten people. The people who died and can’t be heard to speak for themselves,” Petit said at a press conference. “I think prospective (not retroactive) repeal of the death penalty is false. There’ll be multiple appeals for people already on death row.”

Williams, the Senate president, said before the vote that similar legislation has withstood judicial reviews.

"We're very respectful of those who are in favor of the death penalty," he said. "Yet those folks who have already been convicted and are serving under the prior rules of conviction do not have their sentences altered."

If the legislation becomes law, it would apply to capital offenses committed on or after the effective date of the act. It creates new conditions for those convicted of “murder with special circumstances” -- previously capital crimes -- including being moved to a new cell every 90 days and only having two hours a day out of their cell.

There are 11 inmates on Connecticut's death row. The state has carried out one execution since 1976. Connecticut’s Office of Fiscal Analysis estimated that the state spends $5 million a year on the death penalty system, according to the DPIC.

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