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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Connecticut's lawmakers repealed capital punishment two years ago. But just last month, a judge there sentenced a man to death. How could that be? Well, three states - Connecticut, New Mexico and Maryland have abolished the death penalty, but only for those crimes committed after the law was changed.

As Jeff Cohen, from member station WNPR reports, if the crime was committed before that date, someone can still be executed.

JEFF COHEN, BYLINE: Richard Roszkowski was convicted for killing three people in 2006. One of them was Kylie Flannery, a 9-year-old girl. Here's how Judge John Blawie described her death.

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JUDGE JOHN BLAWIE: The child was utterly blameless. But she was shown no mercy and the defendant showed himself to be a true predator. In fact, he chased this little girl down and shot her three times with a 40 caliber weapon, once in the back and twice more at very close range.

COHEN: Then came the sentencing.

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BLAWIE: For capital felony, arising from the murder of Kylie Flannery, a person under 16 years of age, you shall suffer death in the manner authorized by law. This is a terrible sentence. But it is in truth, sir, a sentence you wrote for yourself on September 7th, 2006.

COHEN: This was actually Roszkowski's second sentencing. He need to be resentenced because of an early trial court error. But that left Connecticut in an interesting situation. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, it's the only state to have sentenced someone to death after repealing the death penalty. The state Supreme Court is considering whether that aspect of the law makes it unconstitutional.

THOMAS ULLMAN: To even proceed along these lines now just seems, to me, ridiculous.

COHEN: That's Thomas Ullman, a public defender. He represented one of the two men convicted of killing a mother and her two daughters in the infamous Cheshire home invasion of 2007. Both men are now on death row.

ULLMAN: So we've made a decision to not proceed with the death penalty. And we still are. I don't get the distinction. I think it's unconstitutional. Supreme Court's obviously going to deal with that. I think it's going to be an issue in both this state and federally for a long time.

COHEN: But what confounds Ullman makes perfect sense to Kevin Kane.

KEVIN KANE: It's not really complicated.

COHEN: Kane is the state's top prosecutor, and he says lawmakers didn't leave any room for interpretation.

KANE: Well, they very clearly and very recently voted that the death penalty should apply, or does apply, to any case committed before April of 2012. You can't say, well, gee, they repealed it. So they must mean that it shouldn't be sought anymore.

COHEN: And that means the death penalty could still be used for the 11 people on Connecticut's death row, as well as for anyone who may have committed a crime before the repeal. That said, Kane originally counseled the legislature against such a perspective repeal. He even told lawmakers that he wouldn't seek the death penalty for a hypothetical crime that occurred the day before the repeal became effective. He said that would seem arbitrary and he wouldn't feel right doing it. But now the law is the law.

KANE: We've taken an oath to uphold the law as legislature passes it. And that's our obligation.

COHEN: Kane says the legislature is a direct expression of the voice of the people. But others say behavior is a good indicator, too. And Connecticut's behavior when it comes to enforcing the death penalty is telling. The state has only executed one person in more than 50 years. And that person volunteered to die. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Cohen in Hartford.

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