The Connecticut Supreme Court on Thursday again said that it would be unconstitutional to execute inmates on the state’s death row, upholding a decision from the same court last year effectively banning the death penalty in the state.
In a decision in August, the state’s justices ruled that Connecticut could not execute death-row inmates for crimes committed before the state largely abolished capital punishment. Under a law signed in 2012, Connecticut agreed to abandon the death penalty going forward, while also retaining it as an option for crimes committed before that bill became law.
After an inmate named Eduardo Santiago — convicted of murdering someone in 2000 — challenged his death sentence, a divided Connecticut Supreme Court said last year that he could not be executed because the 2012 law “creates an impermissible and arbitrary distinction” between crimes committed before and after that measure went into effect. (Santiago was re-sentenced to life in prison without parole in December.)
The state’s high court upheld its earlier ruling in a 5-to-2 decision handed down Thursday in a case focusing on Russell Peeler, a man sentenced to death for his role in the 1999 killings of a woman and her 8-year-old son.
The justices ruled that Peeler must instead be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, because his earlier sentence “must be vacated as unconstitutional in light of” last year’s decision. Three justices wrote concurring opinions, while two authored dissents, one of which said the ruling last year “inflicted [damage] on the rule of law” that “must be repaired.”
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (D), who signed the 2012 law abolishing the death penalty, reiterated his opposition to capital punishment on Thursday and focused on how the new ruling will keep the death-row inmates from ever seeking parole.
“Today’s decision reaffirms what the court has already said: those currently serving on death row will serve the rest of their life in prison with no possibility of ever obtaining freedom,” he said in a statement. He added: “Our focus today should not be on those currently sitting on death row, but with their victims and those surviving family members. My thoughts and prayers are with them on this difficult day.”
According to the state Department of Corrections, Connecticut has 11 inmates on death row. Kevin T. Kane, the chief state’s attorney, said his office would “move forward to re-sentence” the remaining death row inmates so that they are all given sentences of life imprisonment without parole.
“I appreciate having been granted the opportunity to present the state’s position on all of the issues the present court raised about Connecticut’s death penalty,” Kane said in a statement. “The court has now spoken and, as always, we respect its decision.”
The only state in New England that still has capital punishment on the books is New Hampshire, where legislators recently came within one vote of abolishing it. Since 2007, seven states have formally abandoned the death penalty. However, they have not agreed on what to do with the people on death row once this takes effect. In some cases, such as New Jersey and Illinois, death sentences were commuted to life sentences without parole. This is what Nebraska’s bill abolishing the death penalty also would do; while lawmakers there voted to get rid of capital punishment last year, that law remains on hold until voters decide in November.
In other cases, though, inmates have remained on death row and the effect on their sentences has been uncertain after their states abandoned the death penalty. Like Connecticut, Maryland — the last of the states to formally outlaw the death penalty — abolished the practice while exempting those already on death row. Before he left office, former governor Martin O’Malley (D) commuted the sentences of the remaining inmates to life terms.
Connecticut has executed only one inmate since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. The state considered abolishing the death penalty in 2009, but Malloy’s predecessor, M. Jodi Rell, vetoed a bill that year that would have eliminated the practice.
Her decision came as the state was reeling after a horrifying home invasion there two years earlier. Two men broke into a family’s home before sexually assaulting a woman, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and her 11-year-old daughter, Michaela. The two men also beat the girl’s father, William, before killing Jennifer, Michaela and the couple’s 17-year-old daughter, Hayley. Both men accused in the case — Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes — were convicted, found guilty and sentenced to death. This crime was cited as the reason lawmakers compromised in 2012, getting rid of the death penalty while keeping it in place for people, like those two men, who had committed crimes beforehand.
This story has been updated.