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.
"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."
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.
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.
Thursday's vote occurred after a debate that lasted more than 10 hours and focused largely on whether death row inmates like Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, convicted in the Cheshire home invasion, could be helped by the law. Critics said they were concerned attorneys would use the law change as grounds for throwing out the sentence in the future.
"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," said Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, who opposes the repeal.
Preserving the death sentence of those still on death row is fairly unusual, although a similar law took effect in New Mexico. The governor declined to commute the sentences of the state's two men on death row after the repeal was signed in 2009.