State Supreme Court To Consider If Death Penalty Repeal Should Affect Current Cases

The Hartford Courant

The state Supreme Court has agreed to take up the issue of whether the recent repeal of Connecticut's death penalty can apply only to future crimes.

In a ruling Thursday, the state's highest court granted a request by Eduardo Santiago, whose death sentence was overturned in June, for written briefs and arguments on a legal filing that raises questions about the repeal's impact on those who committed capital crimes before the new law was passed.

The new law abolishes the death penalty future capital crimes committed in Connecticut but allows executions for those who committed similar crimes before April, when the repeal took effect.

Thursday's ruling was issued as five of the 11 inmates on Connecticut's death row continue to fight their death sentences in a landmark habeas corpus trial being held at Northern Correctional Institution in Somers where death row is housed. The issue in that case is whether the death penalty has been implemented in a racially and geographically biased way. Testimony in that case will resume Wednesday.

Before the trial began, the inmates tried unsuccessfully to raise the issue of the repeal's impact on their death sentences. The judge said claims stemming from the repeal raise legal questions distinct from the evidence being presented at the habeas trial.

The Supreme Court on Thursday gave attorneys for Santiago until Nov. 13 to file briefs. The state will then have 60 days to respond. A hearing could be held sometime early next year.

Santiago's attorney, Mark Rademacher, did not return calls for comment.

In June, the state Supreme Court ordered a new penalty phase for Santiago, saying the trial judge, Elliot Solomon, failed to disclose "significant and relevant" mitigating evidence for jury consideration when they decided to send Santiago to death row in 2005.

Santiago was convicted of shooting 45-year-old Joseph Niwinski in the head as he slept in his West Hartford apartment on Dec. 14, 2000. Prosecutors say he was carrying out a murder-for-hire scheme in exchange for a broken snowmobile.

Prosecutors did not oppose Santiago's request to challenge the repeal's impact on his case. The repeal's issue about ending the death penalty only for future crimes has also been raised in state court in the case of Richard Roszkowski, who was convicted of three killings in Bridgeport. His attorney filed legal papers in Superior Court raising questions about the constitutionality of capital punishment and of the prospective provision of the new state law.

The state and attorneys for death-row inmates have said they expected the matter of the repeal's prospective provision to go to the Supreme Court.

"This is a decision for the Supreme Court. It's in the place where it needs to be," Senior Assistant State's Attorney Marjorie Allen Dauster said. She said for many reasons, it is in the state's interest to have questions about the prospective provision resolved promptly.

During the death penalty debate, some legislators questioned whether prospective repeal would stand up in court. The provision was added following the high-profile trials of Cheshire home invasion killers Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky. Both men are currently on death row.

The last person to be executed in Connecticut was serial killer Michael Ross, who was executed by lethal injection in 2005. Ross voluntarily suspended all appeals in his case.

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