Connecticut Poised To Repeal Death Penalty

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Illinois repealed its death penalty law earlier this month, and Connecticut looks ready to do the same. Supporters of the death penalty are hoping that timing will be on their side. A very high profile murder case goes to trial just as legislators in Hartford are debating the abolition of capitol punishment.


Just a few weeks after Illinois eliminated the death penalty, a bill in Connecticut would do the same thing. And as the bill is debated, a jury is being selected for one of the most notorious murder trials in Connecticut history. Diane Orson of member station WNPR reports.

DIANE ORSON: Two paroled felons were arrested in 2007 and charged in a brutal triple homicide in the suburban town of Cheshire. They allegedly broke into the home of Dr. William Petit, held his family hostage for hours, sexually assaulted his wife and younger daughter, and set the home on fire, killing the mother and two daughters, who were 11 and 17 years old. Dr. Petit was beaten, but survived. He's been outspoken in his calls for the death penalty and addressed reporters outside the courthouse last year after the first defendant was sentenced to death.

Dr. WILLIAM PETIT: I think in a civilized society people need to be responsible for their actions, especially when they're viciously violent and create wanton destruction.

ORSON: Now jury selection is underway for the second defendant, just as state lawmakers are debating a repeal of Connecticut's death penalty. State Representative Gary Holder-Winfield is sponsoring the bill.

State Representative GARY HOLDER-WINFIELD (Democrat, Connecticut): I recognize what that trial does to public opinion. I recognize what it does to inflame the passions of people. But whether or not people are feeling a certain way, I don't think has anything to do with whether or not I should be looking to do what I think is the right thing.

ORSON: There are 10 men on death row in Connecticut. The state's executed one person in the past 50 years after he waived his right to appeal. If this bill becomes law, Connecticut would no longer sentence people to death.

Repeal wouldn't affect inmates currently on death row or the men accused in the Cheshire murders. But State Senator John Kissel, a death penalty supporter, says that could change.

State Senator JOHN KISSEL (Republican, Connecticut): My argument to that is if that bill does indeed pass, and it appears to have substantial support, that the public defender's office will then pursue appeals for all those folks on death row. Essentially we're debating as to whether we're going to have a death penalty, period.

ORSON: Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed a death penalty repeal in early March. Capital punishment was repealed in New Mexico in 2009. A recent Quinnipiac University poll finds Connecticut residents support the death penalty 67 to 28 percent - a new high. Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, says that's not surprising.

Mr. RICHARD DIETER (Executive Director, Death Penalty Information Center): We've seen this in other cases where there's a high-profile crime that's been committed. It's a vote against those defendants, against that crime.

ORSON: But supporters of the bill say the state can't afford the high cost of death penalty cases. Public defender Thomas Ullmann represented the first defendant in the Cheshire murder trials. He says that case has already cost Connecticut $2 million.

Mr. THOMAS ULLMANN (Attorney): And we're looking at 10 to 15 to 20 years of appellate procedures ahead of us. So here we are in the middle of an incredible budgetary nightmare in the state of Connecticut - and many other states around the country - and yet we have this open spigot in capital prosecutions.

ORSON: A bill to abolish the death penalty reached the desk of former Governor Jodi Rell in 2009, but she vetoed it in part she said because of the Cheshire murders. Connecticut's new Governor Dannel Malloy has said that if the current bill reaches his desk, he'll sign it.

For NPR News, I'm Diane Orson in New Haven.�

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