Connecticut Death Penalty Law Is Unconstitutional, Court Rules

Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, convicted of the murders of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Hayley and Michaela, at their Cheshire home in July 2007. Credit Connecticut Department of Corrections

Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, convicted of the murders of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Hayley and Michaela, at their Cheshire home in July 2007. Credit Connecticut Department of Corrections

Benjamin Mueller and James C. McKinley Jr. write:

Casting the death penalty as an outdated tool of justice at odds with today’s societal values, Connecticut’s highest court on Thursday spared the lives of 11 men on death row by ruling that capital punishment violated the State Constitution.

The court ruled, 4 to 3, that a 2012 law abolishing capital punishment must be applied to the 11 inmates facing execution for offenses they committed before the measure took effect. But the decision went well beyond the narrow question of whether those men could be executed, declaring that the death penalty, in the modern age, met the definition of cruel and unusual punishment.

“We are persuaded that, following its prospective abolition, this state’s death penalty no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose,” Justice Richard Palmer of the State Supreme Court wrote for the majority.

In a blistering dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers said the majority’s decision overstated the societal aversion to the death penalty, calling the ruling “a house of cards, falling under the slightest breath of scrutiny.”

Opponents of the death penalty said the decision would quite likely influence high courts in other states, among them Colorado and Washington, where capital punishment has recently been challenged under the theory that society’s mores have evolved, transforming what was once an acceptable step into an unconstitutional punishment.

Though the ruling has no legal impact beyond Connecticut, the United States Supreme Court often uses such opinions as guides to determine whether societal views have shifted, experts on the death penalty said on Thursday. In the past, state court rulings on issues such as the legality of sodomy laws and the execution of mentally disabled people have paved the way for landmark Supreme Court rulings.

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