HARTFORD, Conn. — The Connecticut Senate voted Thursday to abolish the death penalty, putting the state on track to join several others that have done the same in recent years or are considering it as opponents point to recent exonerations, complications with lethal injections and traditional arguments that it's not a crime deterrent.
Death penalty supporters, including the sole survivor of a horrifying home invasion in Connecticut, say the trend is a misguided effort that thwarts justice.
One of the last Northeastern states with the death penalty still on its books, Connecticut is heading for repeal due partly to the election of its first Democratic governor in two decades, Dannel P. Malloy, who has vowed to sign a repeal bill similar to one vetoed by his Republican predecessor. The heavily Democratic state House of Representatives is expected to approve the bill within weeks.
Connecticut would become the fifth state to outlaw capital punishment in five years, joining New Mexico, Illinois, New Jersey and New York. Repeal proposals are also pending in several other states including Kansas and Kentucky, while advocates in California have gathered enough signatures for an initiative to end the death penalty that is expected to go before voters in November.
"I think with the revelations of so many mistakes, aided by DNA testing, it's been made clear that the death penalty risks (innocent) lives," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C.
One of the most forceful voices in favor of Connecticut's death penalty emerged in Dr. William Petit, the survivor of a 2007 attack in which two paroled burglars tormented his family for hours in the New Haven suburb of Cheshire before killing his wife and two daughters. He successfully lobbied state lawmakers to hold off on repeal last year when one of the killers was still facing a death penalty trial, but a similar effort fell short this year.
Petit said execution is a just punishment for the assailants who are now both on death row.
"We believe in the death penalty because we believe it is really the only true, just punishment for certain heinous and depraved murders," Petit said Wednesday ahead of the Senate vote. "One thing you never hear the abolitionists talk about is the victims, almost never. The forgotten people. The people who died and can't be here to speak for themselves."
A Connecticut state Innocence Project that began reviewing cases in 2005 with new DNA technology has yielded several high-profile exonerations.
Kevin Ireland served 20 years in prison for the 1986 murder of a mother of four in Wallingford, but was freed in 2009 on the basis of DNA tests. Another man was sentenced last month to 60 years in prison for the killing. In another case, Miguel Roman served two decades behind bars for killing his pregnant teenage girlfriend in Hartford in1988, only to be freed in 2008 because of DNA evidence. Neither man had faced the death penalty.
One Connecticut state senator said the possibility that an innocent person could face execution weighed heavily on her conscience.
"I cannot stand the thought of being responsible for somebody being falsely accused and facing the death penalty," said Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia. "For me, this is a moral issue and realizing that mistakes are obviously made."
Andrew Schneider, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said it was a proud moment in the state's history.
"Capital punishment is the ultimate denial of civil liberties and its application has been arbitrary, racially discriminatory and ineffective at deterring crime," Schneider said.
Connecticut would be the 17th state without a death penalty.
Although executions are rare in Connecticut, state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield said the legislation deserves support in part because it bring the U.S. closer to having a majority of states oppose the death penalty.
"At that point it's not a question on moving to abolition, but on where do we tip? It becomes something with more momentum," said Holder-Winfield, a New Haven Democrat.
Connecticut has carried out only one execution in 51 years, when serial killer Michael Ross was administered lethal injection in 2005 after giving up his appeal rights.
Judges, lawyers and victims' families have blamed foot-dragging by the courts and lawyers and the complexity of the appeal system for delays in executing others. Of the 11 men on Connecticut's death row, three have been awaiting execution for more than two decades and two others have been on death row for at least 12 years. By comparison, the average time between conviction and execution in Texas is 10 1/2 years.
The state Senate voted 20-16 for repeal after a debate that lasted more than 10 hours and focused largely on the possibility that the legislation could benefit current death row inmates, including Cheshire home invasion killers Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, whose attorneys might use it as grounds for appeal.
The legislation mandates life in prison without the possibility of release for all future cases. It does not directly affect the sentences of death row inmates, but critics including Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield said they could still benefit.
"For those who say we should execute those 11, but none going further, the only way to keep that promise, the only way to keep that promise, is to keep our death penalty law," McKinney said.
Executions in the U.S. have declined from a high of 98 in 1999 to 43 last year, Dieter said. The number of people sentenced to death each year has also dropped sharply, from 300 a decade ago to 78 last year, he said.
Associated Press writers Dave Collins and Susan Haigh contributed to this report.