Last month, the Connecticut General Assembly passed legislation that five years ago seemed extraordinary, but now is increasingly commonplace: it repealed the death penalty. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, state after state has reinstated the death penalty. Recently, that tide has turned. After Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy signed the repeal into law, Connecticut became the fifth state in the past five years to abandon capital punishment, joining New York, New Jersey, New Mexico and Illinois.
In each of the states that recently ended the death penalty, frustration with the practice had been growing for years. During recent legislative debates in Connecticut, a clear consensus emerged that the state's death penalty was broken. Both sides of the debate could agree on one thing: Connecticut's death penalty had been an abysmal failure since its reinstatement in the 1970s. The question facing legislators was whether to try to fix the system or repeal it. After careful study of the death penalty and its effects, a bipartisan majority of legislators concluded that the only way to fix the death penalty is by ending it.
In taking this step, the Connecticut General Assembly responded to concerns raised by those constituencies most directly impacted by the death penalty. In particular, the personal stories of murder victims' families resonated with legislators. In February 2012, 179 Connecticut murder victims' family members joined a letter calling on lawmakers to end the death penalty. "The reality of the death penalty," they explained in their letter, "is that it drags out the legal process for decades. In Connecticut, the death penalty is a false promise that goes unfulfilled, leaving victims' families frustrated and angry after years of fighting the legal system." These pleas by victims' families changed lawmakers' minds and played a key role in the passage of a repeal bill.
The African-American community in the state, led by the NAACP, also was vocal in joining the calls for an end to the death penalty. Throughout its history, the US has applied the death penalty in a biased and arbitrary manner. This bias stubbornly persists even after decades of reforms. A recent study by Stanford Law Professor John Donohue found patterns of death penalty bias first brought to the Supreme Court's attention in McClesky v. Kemp. Donohue's study showed that in Connecticut, as in other states, prosecutors are more likely to seek the death penalty when the victim is white than when the victim is a minority. In addition to this systemic bias, Georgia's execution last September of Troy Davis an African-American whose guilt was in doubt served as a potent symbol of the role race continues play in America's death penalty. Following Davis' execution, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous made repeal of the death penalty a priority and focused on Connecticut in 2012. Jealous joined Connecticut NAACP leaders in a series of rallies, marches, and press conferences calling for repeal of the state's death penalty. Their message was clear: the only way to eliminate bias in capital punishment is to repeal it. Enough is enough.
Finally, members of Connecticut's law enforcement community grew increasingly frustrated with the state's death penalty. Nationally, a majority of police chiefs recognize that there is no evidence that the death penalty deters crime a point backed up by a recent study conducted by the National Academies. Beyond being ineffective, the death penalty wastes millions of dollars a year that could go toward more effective crime-fighting programs. In Connecticut, the General Assembly's non-partisan Office of Fiscal Analysis estimated that the state eventually would save $5 million a year by ending the death penalty. Confronted by such a wasteful and ineffective system, prominent law enforcement officials spoke out. Repeal of the death penalty, in the words of the New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman, was "long overdue."
As key constituencies voiced their concerns, proponents of capital punishment found it impossible to articulate a system that could allay these concerns. Due to Connecticut's history of capital punishment, lawmakers greeted proposed reforms with skepticism. They had been fooled once before. In 1995, Connecticut legislators hailed the passage of a death penalty reform bill as a breakthrough that would render the state's death penalty "workable." Yet, 17 years later, the public remained as frustrated as ever with a death penalty system characterized by delay and bias. There was no will in Connecticut to imitate Southern states and limit safeguards against wrongful executions, due to the numerous death row exonerations and executions of potentially innocent individuals in these states. At the same time, lawmakers had run out of patience with Connecticut's death penalty law, which prolonged the legal process and inflicted additional harm on murder victims' families. For lawmakers, there was only one way to balance the rights of the wrongfully convicted with the needs of victims' families repeal the death penalty.
Connecticut's experiment with capital punishment has come to an end. Expect more states to follow suit. With each passing year, promises that we can design a fair, effective, and foolproof death penalty grow more and more tenuous. In response, a powerful coalition of murder victims' families, civil rights leaders, and law enforcement officials joined by pro-life Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Jewish leaders has come together to call for repeal of the death penalty in Connecticut and other states. Clearly, lawmakers are listening.
Ben Jones has served as the Executive Director of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty (CNADP) since 2009. He directed the organization's grassroots organizing, lobbying, and media campaign during the 2012 legislative session that led to the passage of a bill that repealed Connecticut's death penalty. In addition to his work at CNADP, Ben is pursuing a Ph.D. in political science at Yale University.
Suggested citation: Ben Jones, Connecticut Repeal of Capital Punishment Signals National Trend, JURIST - Hotline, May 16, 2012, http://jurist.org/hotline/2012/05/ben-jones-capital-punishment.php
This article was prepared for publication by Stephen Zumbrun, an associate editor for JURIST's professional commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org