HARTFORD, Conn. — After executing just one prisoner in more than 50 years, Connecticut moved Thursday to become the fifth state in five years to do away with the death penalty for good.
But the repeal wouldn't be a lifeline for the state's 11 death row inmates, including two men who killed a woman and two children in a horrifying home invasion supporters touted as a key reason to keep the law on the books. The state Senate debated for hours Thursday about whether the law would reverse those sentences before voting 20-16 to repeal the law.
After the state Senate's 20-16 Thursday vote to repeal the law, the heavily Democratic state House of Representatives is expected to follow with approval within weeks. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the first Democratic governor elected in two decades, has vowed to sign the same bill vetoed by his Republican predecessor.
The wealthy, liberal state is one of the last in the Northeast to have a death penalty law and would join New Mexico, Illinois, New Jersey and New York as the most recent to outlaw capital punishment. Repeal proposals are also pending in several other states including Kansas and Kentucky, while an initiative to end the death penalty goes before California voters in November.
Like Connecticut, states that have recently decided to abolish capital punishment were among those that in practice rarely executed inmates. New Jersey, for example, hasn't executed anyone in more than 40 years; Connecticut's death row population is more than seven times below the national average.
Death sentences and executions are also plummeting around the country as fewer prosecutors push capital punishment cases, often because of new laws that allow life with no possibility of parole as a sentencing option.
The possibility of executing the innocent, driven by the rise of DNA as a tool to exonerate wrongfully convicted defendants, is the biggest overall factor driving states to reconsider capital punishment, said Doug Berman, an Ohio State University law professor.
"That has the most profound and enduring resonance as an argument and one that can never be pushed back," Berman said.
The Senate debate Thursday focused on how the law could affect the state's 11 death row inmates, including the two men sentenced to death for the 2007 home invasion attack in the New Haven suburb of Cheshire. They include two men sentenced to death for killing a woman and her two daughters after tormenting the family for hours in the New Haven suburb of Cheshire. The lone survivor of the attack, Dr. William Petit, successfully lobbied state lawmakers to hold off on repeal last year when one of the killers was still facing trial.
"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. "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."
Connecticut would become the 17th state without a death penalty. Executions in the U.S. have declined from a high of 98 in 1999 to 43 last year, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. The number of people sentenced to death each year has also dropped sharply, from 300 a decade ago to 78 last year, he said.
Dieter, a leading anti-death penalty advocate, attributed the states' decision to repeal to "the revelation of so many mistakes," wrongful convictions exposed by new DNA evidence. Executions have also been delayed in several states as supplies of the drugs used to put inmates to death have become scarce. States such as Ohio and Texas have limited supplies of pentobarbital, used in lethal injections, and have not said what they will do when those supplies run out.
One Connecticut state senator said the possibility that an innocent person could face execution weighed heavily on her conscience.
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