With both killers in the Cheshire home invasion facing death row, legislation may now come forward that would abolish the death penalty in Connecticut for future crimes.
State Sens. Edith Prague of Columbia and Andrew Maynard of Stonington were the two Democratic legislators who abruptly changed their minds last year about voting to end capital punishment after emotional meetings with Dr. William Petit, the lone survivor of the 2007 triple slaying.
At that time, only one of the murderers, Steven Hayes, had been tried and convicted. The trial and sentencing of Joshua Komisarjevsky would not finish until after the General Assembly session, and the state senators said they didn't want to affect the outcome of the proceedings out of respect for the Petit family. "I just feel that if there is anything I could do to help this man at all, I've got to do it," Prague said when explaining her decision.
So a bill that would have "prospectively" ended the death penalty for future crimes didn't come up for a vote in either legislative chamber - despite strong support in the House - as Prague and Maynard's switches made the Senate tally 19 to 17 against it.
With the new legislative session under way, Maynard says his vote is back in the repeal column because the last home invasion trial is over. "If the vote comes forward today, I will vote for repeal," said Maynard. Last year, with the trials unfinished, "I just didn't think we could have had a dispassionate debate," he said.
Sources say that Prague has expressed interest in possibly rejoining the repeal camp if certain caveats are added to the bill.
But when asked by The Day how she stands on the issue, Prague said last week that she was still deciding whether to keep the death penalty or end it.
"I'm doing a lot of soul-searching here," said Prague, who returned for the short session after experiencing a minor stroke in December. "It's not an easy decision."
The veteran lawmaker was a reliable supporter of capital punishment in the 1990s until changing her views several years ago over the case of James Tillman, a black man who served 18 years for rape and assault convictions before his exoneration by DNA evidence.
Opponents of the death penalty say there are too many wrongful convictions, especially of racial minorities.
Crucial 18th vote
Yet if repeal advocates are determined to force a bill through the legislature this year, they may not need Prague's vote.
Maynard's flip would add an 18th vote against the death penalty, provided that no other senator has changed his or her intent. So if Prague were to vote to keep the death penalty, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman would then be called to break the chamber's 18-18 tie.
Wyman said Friday that she would vote for repeal, provided that the bill is prospective and keeps the death penalty for the 11 convicts on Connecticut's death row.
"I have always been against the death penalty," Wyman said. "I would prefer that these people be put in jail and stay there forever."
The shifting votes are stirring nervousness among capitol punishment proponents. State Rep. Steve Mikutel, D-Griswold, recently said he is skeptical that another round of appeals from Petit would have the same effect on legislators as it did before the Komisarjevsky trial.
Mikutel pointed out that public opinion polls consistently show a majority of state residents supporting the death penalty, and he said it would be wrong for the General Assembly to take action that "misrepresents the will of the people."
"It would be a slap in the face to all victims of murder to abolish the death penalty," Mikutel said.
"The people of Connecticut want the death penalty for serious, outrageous crimes, and legislators should stop interfering and just accept what the courts have said and what the people of Connecticut want."
Repeal activists once thought 2011 would be their year.
There was a new Democratic governor in office who pledged to sign legislation to end the death penalty if it reached his desk. Former Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell had vetoed such a bill in 2009, a bill that had easily cleared the House but barely passed the Senate with a 19-17 vote at 4 a.m. after almost 11 hours of debate.
Bill's prospects grow
The bill that emerged last year from the legislature's judiciary committee, sponsored by state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, would have replaced the death penalty with life imprisonment without parole. To gain votes, it was crafted to apply to only future crimes, so current death row inmates would still face execution.
Holder-Winfield never doubted the bill's chances in the House, but knew the Senate vote tally would be close.
In an interview last week, he said he anticipates the judiciary committee raising the bill again this year. He acknowledged the possibility of using the lieutenant governor's vote to push it through the Senate, but said he doesn't want to rely on a tie-breaker to pass such key legislation.
Although Holder-Winfield wishes that his bill ended the death penalty completely, he said there is not enough support for legislation that would spare those already on death row.
During a committee hearing last year on Holder-Winfield's bill, both Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane and Chief Public Defender Susan O. Storey said that any "prospective" law that ended the death penalty for future crimes would likely result in appeals by death row inmates that would overturn their sentences.
If such a scenario plays out, both Prague and Maynard could end up voting for a bill that inadvertently spares the lives of Hayes and Komisarjevsky.
State Rep. Gerald Fox III, D-Stamford, judiciary committee co-chairman, said that members will do additional research into that question once the repeal bill comes up again.
(source: The Day)