The Connecticut legislature voted in 2012 to abolish the death penalty, however, that measure only affected future crimes committed in the state. Calling it unconstitutional, Associate Justice Richard Palmer wrote the majority opinion, stating that the death penalty “no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose.”
Connecticut’s Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision Thursday to overturn the death sentence of Eduardo Santiago, who was convicted in a 2000 murder-for-hire plot in West Hartford. The ruling will quite possibly lead to the death sentences of 11 condemned prisoners in total being reversed, thus eliminating the death penalty in the state altogether. The Connecticut legislature voted in 2012 to abolish the death penalty, however, that measure only affected future crimes committed in the state. Calling it unconstitutional, Associate Justice Richard Palmer wrote the majority opinion, stating that the death penalty “no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose.” He continued writing that any execution “would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.” Palmer joined Justices Dennis G. Eveleigh, Flemming Norcott, and Andrew J. McDonald in ruling against the death sentence in the decision, which was met with two concurrences and three dissents.
The ruling was based on an appeal by Santiago’s attorneys, who argued that the carrying out of his death sentence by lethal injection would violate the constitution’s cruel and unusual punishment provisions. The ruling comes after a two-year Court review of the case, debating whether or not it was ethical to execute one individual for a crime and not another. Ultimately, and amid often-contentious arguments, consistency won out. The majority also ruled in a footnote, that it would likely take a constitutional amendment to reinstate the death penalty, given the language of the opinion. Although Connecticut governor Dannel P. Malloy opposes the death penalty in theory, he expressed his understanding for the families of the victims killed by the condemned inmates. Malloy said about the ruling, “Today is a somber day where our focus should not be on the 11 men sitting on death row, but with their victims and those surviving families members. My thoughts and prayers are with them during what must be a difficult day.” Malloy, who has been receptive to the courts guidance regarding the death penalty, noted that the 11 prisoners would still be incarcerated for life without ever having a chance at parole
Among the dissenters was Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers, who called every step of the majority decision “fundamentally flawed.” In his dissent, one of three dissenting opinions, Rogers writes “The majority’s determination that the death penalty is unconstitutional under our state’s constitution is based on a house of cards, falling under the slightest breath of scrutiny.” Justice Carmen E. Espinosa rebutted Palmer’s argument, noting that the bill proposed by the legislature was specific about the compromise made in 2012 among death penalty opponents and those who supported upholding the existing sentences in light of high-profile murder trials in the state at that time. Espinosa wrote in her dissent, “the majority disregards the obvious: the legislature, which represents the people of the state and is the best indicator of contemporary societal mores, expressly retained the death penalty.” Espinosa also believes that the death penalty could be reinstated by legislative vote, despite the majority ruling regarding cruel and unusual punishment, writing “As the majority recognizes, there is nothing that requires that the standards of decency evolve only in one direction.”
Business Insider/Associated Press – Pat Eaton-Robb
Hartford Courant – Edmund H. Mahony and Matthew Kauffman
Washington Post – Mark Berman