Ruling stands: no death row

Ruling stands: no death row

The Connecticut Supreme Court has upheld its decision to end the use of the death penalty for inmates already on death row.

The court in January gave state prosecutors the unusual opportunity to ask justices to reconsider the August 4-3 ruling that barred the death penalty, based largely on 2012 legislation that abolished capital punishment prospectively.

In a 5-2 ruling released Thursday justices decided to stand by that ruling.

Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers, one of three dissenters in the August ruling, said she didn’t want to set a precedent that would encourage people to challenge future rulings in hopes that a different makeup would result in a more favorable outcome.

“Just as my personal beliefs cannot drive my decision-making, I feel bound by the doctrine of stare decisis in this case for one simple reason — my respect for the rule of law,” she wrote in her opinion. “To reverse an important constitutional issue within a period of less than one year solely because of a change in justices on the panel that is charged with deciding the issue, in my opinion, would raise legitimate concerns by the people we serve about the court’s integrity and the rule of law in the state of Connecticut.”

“Stare decisis” is the legal practice of abiding by past rulings, and a requirement that lower courts adhere to precedent unless an appellate court rules otherwise.

Justice Richard A. Robinson, the only of the seven justices who didn’t participate in the August ruling, agreed with Rogers in his own concurring opinion.

Robinson noted his presence was the only change from last August — Justice Flemming Norcott presided over that case, but is no longer on the court — and the August ruling “is not so clearly wrong that we should risk damaging this court’s institutional stability by overruling it.”

Justices Richard Palmer, Dennis G. Eveleigh and Andrew J. McDonald stood by their August decision, along with Norcott, to overturn capital punishment for inmates already sentenced to death.

They again pointed to the General Assembly’s decision in 2012 to end death sentences for all future crimes, saying it symbolized a change in attitudes on capital punishment and “reflected the awareness of the legislature that the infrequency” of its usage in Connecticut.

Justices Carmen E. Espinosa and Peter T. Zarella maintained their opposition — they also dissented in the August decision — disagreeing with Rogers and Robinson that the court should stand by its prior ruling.

“A panel change cannot insulate a clearly wrong decision from being overruled,” Espinosa said, citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision that defied a recently set precedent.

Zarella was even more critical, meanwhile, saying Robinson and Rogers “believe it is more important to spare this court of the purported embarrassment than to correct demonstrable constitutional error.”

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy supported the decision in a tempered statement. “Capital punishment is an emotional issue, and my opposition to it arose after many years as a prosecutor, then as an attorney, and finally as a public servant,” he said. “Opinions on this issue vary, and it’s critical that we respect that diversity of perspectives. These are deeply personal and moral issues that we as a society are facing and the court has once again ruled on today.”

Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman said the decision “furthers Connecticut’s work to ensure our criminal justice system is effective and that it protects the public it serves.”

Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane, meanwhile, said the Division of Criminal Justice is now preparing for new proceedings regarding sentencing for death row inmates — the decision doesn’t overturn their convictions.

“The Court has now spoken and, as always, we respect its decision,” he said. “As such, we will move forward to re-sentence the individuals currently on death row to a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release.”

The legislature’s 2012 decision to only abolish the death penalty prospectively was in response to the death sentences for the two men convicted of murder and other charges stemming from a 2007 Cheshire home invasion.

Steven Hayes was sentenced to death in 2010, and Joshua Komisarjevsky received the same sentence in 2011.
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