Supreme Court Scrutinizes Inmate's Challenge To Provision In Death Penalty Repeal

The Hartford Courant

In highly anticipated arguments Tuesday before the Connecticut Supreme Court, a convicted killer's lawyer offered what he called a simple solution to settling the controversy over a death penalty repeal that excluded inmates already on death row.

"You send it back to the legislature and you tell them this provision is unconstitutional and then they can do what they want to do," Senior Assistant Public Defender Mark Rademacher said.

But Supreme Court Justice Flemming L. Norcott Jr. questioned such simplicity.

"Conceivably you could end up winning this battle and losing the overall war with respect to the future of the death penalty, right?" Norcott asked.

Rademacher replied: "I think the epilogue would be the legislature, put to the choice of no repeal or repeal for all, would say repeal for all."

Legislators, Rademacher said, can agree or disagree about whether the death penalty is a good idea. But once lawmakers say there is no more death penalty, there should be agreement that decisions about who lives and who is executed should not be based upon "something as arbitrary" as the date of the repeal, he said.

Rademacher said singling out someone for execution based on whether a murder was committed before or after the repeal took effect is like choosing defendants for lethal injection based on the first letter of their last names.

"That renders the entire scheme arbitrary because they've stuck a factor in there that the state has to prove that has no bearing on an individual's culpability or the heinousness of the crime," Rademacher said.

Connecticut lawmakers abolished the death penalty a year ago but made the law prospective, effectively applying only to new cases and keeping in place the death sentences imposed on current death row inmates. That prompted legal challenges by attorneys representing those condemned to die by execution.

Last September, the state Supreme Court agreed to take up the new law's prospective issue when it granted a request by Eduardo Santiago, whose death sentence was overturned in June, two months after the repeal took effect.

The justices ordered a new penalty phase for Santiago, saying the trial judge failed to disclose "significant and relevant" mitigating evidence for jury consideration when jurors decided to send Santiago to death row for the December 2000 killing of Joseph Niwinski in West Hartford.

During the death penalty debate, some legislators questioned whether a 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 of whom are on death row.

Defense Cites Top Prosecutor

In his arguments Tuesday, Rademacher noted one of those skeptics: Connecticut's top prosecutor.

"The problems with the prospective repeal were aptly summed up by Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane when he told the legislature that prospective repeal creates two classes of people," Rademacher said.

"One will be subject to execution and the other will not, not because of the nature of the crime or the existence or absence of any aggravating or mitigating factor but because of the date on which the crime was committed," Rademacher said Kane told legislators in March 2012.

"That," he said, "is untenable as a matter of constitutional law or public policy. I just wouldn't plain feel right doing it," Rademacher recalled Kane saying.

Rademacher said no jurisdiction in the history of the United States has executed an offender after renouncing capital punishment. In Connecticut, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles — not the governor — has the power to commute a death sentence to life in prison.

"Connecticut, lacking any kind of executive clemency, has to make that decision, are we going to be the first and only state to do that?" Rademacher said.

Rademacher said such an execution would be cruel and unusual punishment and would violate the statutory prohibition against arbitrary death sentences. It would also violate constitutional prohibitions against arbitrary criminal laws that are unsupported by legitimate "penological objectives."

By singling out Santiago and 10 other men on death row for harsher penalties, Rademacher argued that Connecticut's repeal of capital punishment violates Santiago's federal equal protection guarantees.

Senior Assistant State's Attorney Harry Weller argued in support of the new law, saying prospective repeal was the legislature's intent. He said it is constitutional and argued against the justices ruling on just part of the law. If the effective date of the law is found unconstitutional, the law must be struck in its entirety, he said.

Weller said he saw two outcomes to Tuesday's arguments, "and neither of them get the defendant what he wants." The first outcome, he said, would be to affirm the constitutionality of the new law. The second outcome would be a ruling that the new law is unconstitutional.

"But if you do that, the entire act is unconstitutional," Weller said. "This defendant remains subject to the death penalty and the death penalty remains in place."

State: Issue Best Left To Legislature

Weller said the state's highest court has always deferred to the legislature in regard to decisions about Connecticut's death penalty.

"This is quintessentially a legislative judgment, a judgment made by the people of the state of Connecticut, not this court," Weller said. "This is a major policy issue, this is a political issue ... this is subject to the debate across the street [at the Capitol], contributed to by the people of the state of Connecticut — that's where the policy is made on this, not in this court."

Weller said the state's highest court in the past has said, "unless the legislature is far off the mark, this court is powerless to act."

Weller said the repeal is not arbitrary and that those on death row have been prosecuted under due process of law and sentenced under "the most protected and probably the best capital statute in the entire country."

For the men currently on death row, Weller said, "the level of culpability is higher because at the time the crime was committed, there was a statement from the people of the state that the death penalty is the penalty of choice under certain circumstances."

In closing, Weller urged the justices to "validate the statute and allow the statute to act the way the legislature intended it to."

Former state Rep. Michael Lawlor, who served as House chairman of the judiciary committee and once worked as a state prosecutor, said Tuesday he does not expect the justices to find the repeal unconstitutional.

"If the Supreme Court ruled that way, it would be a first," Lawlor said. "No one is expecting that to happen."

Lawlor said it is not unusual for lawmakers to reduce penalties for crimes. Though several states, including Illinois and New Jersey, have repealed capital punishment in recent years, those states have not executed any inmates, Lawlor said.

Lawlor noted that the last person to be executed in Connecticut was serial killer Michael Ross, and it occurred in 2005 only after Ross waged a legal fight to end his appeals and to have the sentence imposed. Before Ross, the last execution in Connecticut was in 1960, when the state electrocuted Joseph "Mad Dog" Taborsky for murdering six people during a robbery spree.

"No matter what the Supreme Court does, it seems unlikely anyone will be executed any time soon," Lawlor said.

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