Conn. Court Examines Alleged Death Penalty Bias

A legal case under way in Connecticut, involving a group of death row inmates, has attracted some national attention. The trial resumes Tuesday and centers on whether there's been race, gender and geographic bias in Connecticut's death penalty cases. Diane Orson of member station WNPR reports

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Let's catch up now on a court case in Connecticut that involves a group of death row inmates. The trial centers on whether there has been race, gender and geographic bias in Connecticut's death penalty cases. Diane Orson of member station WNPR reports.

DIANE ORSON, BYLINE: In April, Connecticut became the 17th state to abolish capital punishment. The new law applies to only future crimes, leaving eleven inmates currently on Connecticut's death row. Five of them are suing the state. They want their death sentences overturned. They argue that murder cases have been handled differently based on where in Connecticut they were charged. Thomas Ullmann is a public defender in New Haven.

THOMAS ULLMANN: It's pretty obvious that, you know, if you are accused of certain crimes in one jurisdiction, that you're automatically going to face the death penalty. And in others, you know, there's some discretion that's imposed.

ORSON: The inmates also claim racial bias. They cite research that shows in Connecticut defendants who murder white victims are more likely to get the death penalty than defendants who murder non-white victims, especially if the defendants are minorities themselves.

Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane was the first witness and was questioned about the time he was a prosecutor in New London County. When he took the stand last week, he was asked to explain how he decided when to charge a capital felony. This is from a closed-circuit video feed of the trial.

KEVIN KANE: You'd always look at the applicable statutes. And particularly with regard to death penalty cases, the applicable statutes are very precise and detailed.

ORSON: He said he'd look for further guidance to Supreme Court decisions, police reports and witness statements. Kane argues, along with Connecticut, that the death penalty is not applied arbitrarily in the state.

RICHARD DIETER: The death penalty is on the defensive.

ORSON: Richard Dieter is executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

DIETER: It's declining in executions. It's declining in the number of death sentences each year. And it's increasing in the number of states that have abolished it, with Connecticut being the most recent. So I think courts are now more open to hearing about the problems with the death penalty.

ORSON: By the end of the first day of testimony, the two sides agree that there are no written guidelines or policies in Connecticut on when to seek the death penalty or reduce to a lesser charge. And that each state's attorney has made decisions based on his own criteria.

Connecticut has executed one person in the past 50 years. Lawyers for the inmates had wanted to include and argue the issue of whether it's constitutional to execute inmates after the state has abolished the death penalty. The judge denied the request and further legal challenges are expected.

ULLMANN: It's ridiculous. The system is starved for money.

ORSON: Again, public defender Thomas Ullmann. He says the current trial and any future appeals will cost millions.

ULLMANN: These guys are going to be in prison for the rest of their life anyway. It just seems to me a ludicrous position to take. They should just take every one of these sentences and convert them to life without the possibility of release and be done with it.

ORSON: Despite Ullmann's view, both sides are expected to present experts who've researched whether race, gender or geography slant death penalty decisions. The trial is expected to last about a week.

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

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