Courant crime reporter Gerald J. Demeusy probably didn't realize at the time that he would chronicle a historic moment in Connecticut on the night of May 17, 1960.
The veteran journalist watched 2,000 volts of electricity surge through the body of Joseph Taborsky, the man condemned to die for terrorizing Connecticut during a three-month murderous robbery spree in the winter of 1956-57.
Taborsky, ironically nicknamed the "execution bandit," was the last person to die in Connecticut's electric chair. Another serial killer, Michael Ross, would not be executed until 45 years later, put to death in a different way, by lethal injection, for kidnapping, strangling and raping young women.
"As his eyes fell on execution witnesses seated before him, Taborsky lifted a hand in friendly greeting to this reporter and another who had covered his murder trial. 'Hi', he said with a smile," Demeusy wrote in his dispatch from the state prison in Wethersfield.
"Swift death came a few minutes later after 10:30 p.m. on an electrical charge so powerful it snapped his body against leather straps that laced him to the chair."
Had Taborsky's crimes never happened, the death penalty in Connecticut might have been history decades before it was repealed in 2012.
Two years before Taborsky's crimes, Connecticut legislators debated a bill that sought to abolish capital punishment. The Courant backed the legislation after publishing a series of investigative stories that examined the death penalty, concluding, among other things, that there was no proof that execution was a deterrent to crime. Gov. Abraham Ribicoff also favored abolition at the time.
But then Taborsky and his accomplice, Arthur Culombe, struck.
The career criminals held up small businesses around the state in violent robberies that escalated into execution-style shootings of both owners and patrons.
Ribicoff changed his mind about wanting to end the death penalty in Connecticut. So did The Courant, writing in a Feb. 19, 1957, editorial just days before Taborsky and Culombe were arrested, that while the newspaper did not consider capital punishment a deterrent, executing "such cold killers is to remove a dangerous force from society, in the interest of protecting its members from further killings … like putting out a fire, or killing a mad dog."
Keep the death penalty, proponents argued then and through the years, for those especially heinous crimes, for the worst of the worst criminals like Taborsky and Ross, who both eventually waived their appeals and asked to be put to death. Connecticut would become the only New England state to carry out executions since the 1950s.
Ultimately, Connecticut's death penalty would get a reputation as an unworkable punishment that helped give the state's most notorious criminals a public platform as they slogged through appeal after appeal toward an unlikely execution. Through the years, legislators debated why Connecticut remained committed to keeping the death penalty when it rarely carried out any executions.
There were moral and legal challenges to the death penalty based on statistical showings of racial, geographical and ethnic bias that opponents argued rendered it unconstitutional. Some also questioned why Connecticut wasn't changing its societal attitude toward the death penalty as the rest of the nation looked to abolish capital punishment.
But Connecticut's collective view of executing criminals did evolve. Public polls that showed residents favored the death penalty for only the most notorious killers certainly represented a change in philosophy from the early days of capital punishment in Connecticut.
A Long List Of Affronts To Religion
Back then, it wasn't just murder that sent someone to the gallows. In the 17th century, the death penalty applied to many crimes.
The state's earliest settlers looked to religion to influence what a capital crime was in Connecticut, according to Lawrence B. Goodheart, author of "The Solemn Sentence of Death: Capital Punishment in Connecticut."
The New Haven Colony appeared to have some of the strictest laws, particularly when it came to sexuality. A man caught masturbating could get the death penalty. Idolatry, blasphemy, manslaughter, man-stealing, rebellion, robbery, cursing a natural parent and profaning the Sabbath also made the list of capital crimes, according to Goodheart.
Being convicted of these crimes didn't always lead to death. Instead, there was public humiliation in the stockades for hours, boring through the tongue with a hot iron, hot-iron branding, the cropping of ears and public whipping.
Between 1642 and 1694, about a dozen people were executed in New Haven and Hartford for bestiality, adultery, infanticide, incest, rape and sodomy, according to Goodheart. The Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., lists Achsah Young as the first person in the new colonies to be executed for witchcraft in 1647.
Goodheart writes that witchcraft figured in some 52 cases in Connecticut, resulting in 14 convictions; the verdicts of three of the condemned women were set aside. Nine of the 11 executions took place in the greater Hartford area.
"Villagers and officials, especially ministers, coerced her to confess," Goodheart writes in his book about the accused witches. "A confession was double-edged: by admitting her guilt, she called on divine mercy to save her eternal soul, but at the same time legitimated the protocol that condemned her. If she was found guilty, she was hanged to purge the community of evil."
Honing In On Homicide
By 1750, biblical language was dropped from the capital code in Connecticut and officials started to be more discriminating in defining capital crime. Witchcraft, bestiality and incest were no longer considered capital crimes, Goodheart writes. After 1830, homicide would be the only capital crime that would result in execution in Connecticut.
As years passed, officials also re-examined who should be put to death, particularly after the 1786 hanging in New London of Hannah Occuish, a 12-year-old girl whose parents were Native American and African American, for the murder of a 6-year-old white girl. Hannah's mother had sent her to be a servant in the home of a white family.
According to Goodheart, defense attorney Timothy Larrabie fought hard for Hannah's life, arguing that such a young girl didn't understand the consequences of her actions or the significance of a criminal trial.
Believed to be one of the youngest people ever executed in the United States, she was the last female executed in Connecticut.
Throughout the years, how executions were carried out in the state also changed. Initially, executions were public spectacles, sometimes drawing tens of thousands of witnesses to the horror.
The Courant was there on Nov. 13, 1817, when more than 15,000 people gathered in Danbury to witness the execution of Amos Adams.
The dispatch in The Courant, published Nov. 25, 1817, said that hours before he was put to death, Adams was brought to a church to hear a sermon. Sitting in the audience with "the halter about his neck, he looked about upon the people with as much apparent unconcern as though he had been a spectator," the newspaper reported.
Adams "arrived at the gallows at 3 o'clock, and at 12 minutes past three, the scaffold dropped. Let those who wish to see Scripture to justify the executing for a rape read Deuteronomy xxii, 25, 26 and 27."
Adams' execution marked the last time a person would be hanged for rape in Connecticut.
A Call For Prison Reforms
By 1833, there were no more public executions. Spectators could still witness hangings, but the number of onlookers dwindled as they were held at county jails and ultimately at the state prison in Wethersfield, which opened in 1828. There, men were hanged until the electric chair replaced the automatic gallows in 1937.
According to Goodheart, 12 men were executed during the first 50 years the state prison was open. At first, the new prison appeared to be a model facility, more rehabilitative than the troubled Newgate Prison in East Granby. But when Gerald Toole fatally stabbed one of the wardens, questions were raised about conditions in Wethersfield.
Toole said that the stabbing was in self-defense and that he had been repeatedly whipped for not making boots fast enough. He described the prison as brutal and dehumanizing, Goodheart writes.
A jury ended up convicting Toole of murder and he was sentenced to death. But his case resulted in letters to newspapers from citizens wondering if prison reforms were needed. His execution renewed the public's interest in capital punishment, as explained in the Sept. 20, 1862, edition of The Courant.
"The Execution of Gerald Toole," the headline read, promising a well-told tale. As Toole went about the last-day-on-death-row rituals like eating his final meal and visiting with relatives, "a great many persons, from morbid curiosity, walked up and down the corridor opposite his cell. This annoyed him very much, and he requested that it might be stopped," The Courant reported.
The Courant's dispatch from the prison offered readers a detailed account of the moments leading up to the execution, how a sheriff walked to Toole's cell and "in a clear, distinct voice," read the death warrant of "about five pages, signed and sealed with the black seal."
The news article spared few details about the day, including the device that would take Toole's last breath.
"The gallows were erected at the south end of the western gallery of the jail … a platform of about six foot square supported the uprights and cross beam. This platform was reached by a flight of ten steps. The drop, which was almost the whole square, was firmly hung on three well-oiled hinges. A single iron bolt held it in its place. This bolt was worked by a lever to which was attached a rope fastened to the bottom steps, which worked by a spring. This step was held in its place by a block of wood, which was removed when everything was ready for the final fall."
Enthralled By A Modern-Day Jesse James
From then on, The Courant stepped up its coverage of executions, since journalists were now among the few allowed in the prison to witness them. Readers, particularly in the expanding urban areas, were hungry for crime coverage and The Courant made a point of expanding its reporting of death penalty cases.
Readers were especially interested in notorious gangster Gerald Chapman, and according to Goodheart, The Courant responded, publishing about 350 stories about him in a two-year period.
Connecticut came to know Chapman after he gunned down New Britain police Officer James Skelly on Oct. 12, 1924, at the former Davidson & Levanthol department store on Main Street. A team of burglars entered the store posing as workmen and Skelly was one of several officers who responded to a call from the store owner.
Chapman, who had just escaped from a federal penitentiary in Atlanta, reportedly yelled, "Don't come in here or I'll shoot." Officers surrounded the store, and when Skelly approached Chapman, he shot the officer.
"Yeggman kills officer in New Britain; Pal, Springfield man, held," headlined the front page of The Courant on Oct. 13, 1924. "Yeggman" was slang for a burglar.
Chapman, who had been in the Georgia prison serving a 25-year sentence for his role in a mail truck heist of more than $2 million, was captured a few months later in Indiana. Dubbed by The Courant as "the Jesse James of modern times," Chapman insisted he was innocent of the murder, and his celebrity status helped him win supporters who wrote letters, petitions and postcards opposing his execution.
The first paragraph of Courant's dispatch about his execution on April 6, 1926, summed up his notoriety: "The honorable passing of a President or a king would have hardly less publicity. … It is a commonplace fact, lament it as one may, that the vast majority of mankind finds one villain more interesting than a thousand righteous men."
The Courant's editorial writers also weighed in: "When Gerald Chapman was hanged at the state prison shortly after midnight this morning for the murder of Policeman Skelly, the state eliminated from the stage of the American underworld the most sensational and dramatic figure of crime produced thus far by the Twentieth Century."
The Courant's editorial writers sought to defend the newspaper's explicit coverage of executions after some readers objected to gruesome details used in describing the 1929 execution of John Feltovic as he struggled while hanging from the rope.
"To some it would have been much more agreeable if we had simply made the bare announcement that this youthful murderer had paid the penalty for his crime in the manner prescribed by the law," The Courant wrote on Dec. 14, 1929. "To others, the plain recital of the circumstances attending the execution served the very useful purpose of bringing to the fore the whole question of capital punishment. Our own belief that if capital punishment is to be retained as a deterrent of murder — the widest possible publicity should be given to the methods of its application …"
In 1935, legislators voted to replace hangings with electrocution. Officials believed the method, used in such states as Massachusetts and New York, was faster, less gruesome and inexpensive. The legislature took further action regarding the death penalty in 1951 when it passed a law allowing juries in first-degree murder cases to recommend life in prison instead of the death penalty.
Four years later, as momentum was building in the quest to abolish the death penalty and a bill recommending its end was debated at the Capitol, Taborsky's execution-style murders were gripping the state, helping to reverse a growing movement toward abolition. Again, citizens — as well as elected officials, including those who leaned toward abolition — were asking themselves whether capital punishment should be in place for the state's most notorious killers.
Legislators answered that question in 1959, voting against abolishing the death penalty, 166-104. In a nod to the growing push for abolition, The Courant's editorial writers noted that the margin in favor of keeping capital punishment was smaller than it had ever been. But how does society handle criminals like Taborsky?
"The one gaping hole that the abolitionists will not face squarely is the problem of the multiple, commercial, purposeful killer. … While capital punishment is unquestionably not a deterrent to others, it is an absolute deterrent to the particular multiple murderer who is executed," The Courant wrote on June 4, 1959.
"The fact is that for most kinds of murder, execution serves no useful purpose and our law should be changed to recognize that fact. But there remains the possibility of executing that amoral animal in human form, the relentless multiple killer."
Years after Taborsky's execution, the legacy of his crime spree was still felt. Connecticut lawmakers voted in 1963 and 1965 to retain the death penalty. But movements on the national front — states repealing the death penalty and federal court rulings expanding defendants' rights and restricting capital punishment — and outspoken abolitionists kept the anti-death penalty debate alive.
Connecticut's death-row inmates spoke out themselves in the mid-1990s when Sedrick Cobb asked for the opportunity to present statistics to demonstrate that racial discrimination influenced the imposition of the death penalty. Cobb, who is black, had been convicted in the December 1989 rape and killing in Waterbury of 23-year-old Julia Ashe of Watertown. Ashe was white.
Cobb eventually was told by the state Supreme Court that he would have to lodge his claims about racial bias in a habeas petition, a convict's last resort, invoked when previous efforts to overturn a verdict or reduce a sentence have failed. Cobb and four other condemned killers filed the petition, but in a major blow last October, a Superior Court judge concluded that the inmates had failed to prove any racial, ethical or geographical bias in the state's application of the death penalty.
All the while, death sentences were being handed down in Connecticut. But no killers were being put to death as public defenders worked to exhaust every opportunity to raise valid claims and challenges to their clients' fate.
That changed when serial killer Michael Ross decided he was through with the protracted post-conviction regimen in Connecticut. Like Taborsky more than four decades before him, Ross decided to waive his appeals in 2004. He had been on death row since 1987 for kidnapping and strangling four young women from eastern Connecticut and admitted to killing eight women in all.
Ross' decision to stop fighting/delaying his execution led to a lengthy legal battle, and the death penalty debate was again alive in Connecticut. A Quinnipiac University poll released in January 2005 as the courts were weighing Ross' fate showed that many voters who opposed capital punishment favored Ross' death.
The poll, according to a Jan. 13, 2005, article in The Courant, said that 59 percent of Connecticut voters favored the death penalty and 31 percent were opposed, but the execution of Ross was favored by a higher margin, 70 percent to 23 percent.
"A quarter of the voters who generally oppose the death penalty would make an exception in his case," poll director Douglas Schwartz told The Courant.
The poll's results showed death penalty opponents in the General Assembly what they would likely grapple with that year if they sought a vote on repeal. Ross' brutal crimes would be fresh in people's minds as Taborsky's crimes were in the mid-1950s.
Ross' execution in May 2005 was the first by lethal injection. He was the 158th person to be executed in Connecticut.
As death-penalty opponents walked with signs and chanted about a mile from the gates of Northern Correctional Institution in Somers, where he was held, in protest of the execution, Ross was put to death at the Osborn Correctional Institution, also in Somers, while a handful of witnesses, including family members of his victims, looked on.
Veteran court reporter Lynne Tuohy captured the mood and the moment for The Courant.
"Serial killer Michael Bruce Ross was pronounced dead at 2:25 a.m. today, the first convict executed in New England in 45 years. In the end, the man described as both monster and manipulator controlled his own fate. He had until 2:01 to call off the execution by saying he wanted to pursue more appeals. He did not, and the series of three lethal drugs coursed through his veins. Osborn Correctional Institution Warden Christine Whidden announced Ross' death from a podium at 2:28. Shortly afterward, Gov. M. Jodi Rell said Ross alone is responsible for his fate. 'Today is a day no one truly looked forward to — but then no one looked forward to the brutal, heinous deaths of those eight young girls,' Rell said. 'I hope that there is at least some measure of relief and closure for their families.'"
It would be Rell who would play a prominent role in another attempt by Connecticut to end capital punishment.
For the first time, both chambers of the General Assembly voted in 2009 to abolish the death penalty, a major turnaround from 1995 when Republican Gov. John G. Rowland and the Republican-controlled state Senate made it easier to impose the death penalty by changing the way juries and judges could decide a case. That year, legislators also made it possible for criminals who murdered a child under the age of 16 to face execution.
By 2009, though, the legislature had become more liberal, with Democrats holding at least 2-1 ratios in both chambers. Those supporting abolition noted that Connecticut and New Hampshire were the only states in New England at the time with the death penalty still in place. And New York, New Jersey and New Mexico had just voted to outlaw capital punishment. The measure also managed to pass following one of Connecticut's most notorious crimes — the Cheshire home invasion killings of July 2007.
Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, both career criminals out on parole, were facing trial in 2009 for killing Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters Hayley and Michaela during a home invasion in which the family was tortured and bound in their home before it was set on fire. The Cheshire killings repeatedly came up during debates at the legislature about the death penalty.
After her veto of the repeal, Rell, a Republican and longtime supporter of the death penalty, did not specifically mention the Cheshire killings. But her two-page veto message left little doubt that those crimes were on her mind: "The death penalty sends a clear message to those who may contemplate such cold, calculated crimes. We will not tolerate those who have murdered in the most vile, dehumanizing fashion. We should not, will not, abide those who have killed for the sake of killing; to those who have taken a precious life and shattered the lives of many more."
Three years later, legislators voted to repeal the death penalty again, but this time a new governor was at the helm, Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, and he pledged to sign the new legislation.
But the repeal came with a twist: The new law abolished the death penalty for future capital crimes committed in Connecticut. Lawmakers — with the horror of the Cheshire slayings still fresh after two riveting trials and the two killers sentenced to death — insisted that the measure keep inmates already on death row eligible for execution. A challenge to that provision is pending before the state Supreme Court.
Critics of Connecticut's death penalty for years said the lengthy appeals process and a series of statutory restrictions made it almost impossible for anyone to make it to the death chamber. They point out that Ross and Taborsky voluntarily chose death. The last person to be executed after exhausting all of his appeals was cop killer Frank Wojculewicz, who was electrocuted on Oct. 27, 1959.
Some, including some family members of those killed by men on death row, say life in prison without the possibility of parole puts a killer in prison with the rest of the population, to fade away without renewed media attention every time an appeal or a step bringing them closer to execution surfaces.
At public hearings before the legislature's 2012 repeal, several family members of victims made those points.
"The very worst thing you can do for people in the wake of a homicide is keep them ensnared in the judicial process," Gail Canzano, a clinical psychologist from West Hartford whose brother-in-law, Thomas E. Otte, was murdered in Hartford in 1999 told The Courant. "They need help disengaging from the traumatic event. The judicial system does not allow that."
But not all of the family members felt that way.
Lera Shelley, whose 14-year-old daughter was killed by Ross, told The Courant that her two-decade wait for the execution of her daughter's murderer was worth it. Finally there was justice for Leslie and the others.
"When I saw Michael Ross take his last breath, I knew it was all over," Shelley told The Courant on April 5, 2012.
At the time, the state's death penalty was near repeal and she worried that other family members of murder victims would not ever get the chance to get the justice and closure she said she found in execution, a finality she said she needed to move on in life.
As she told the newspaper, "It was like a big cloud that had been hanging over our head for years had finally been lifted, and sunshine was coming in."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun