King Of Death Row Toppled
The end came swiftly: Yesterday, Waterbury State's Attorney John Connelly resigned, ending a 30-year career as one of Connecticut's most colorful and successful prosecutors. The Waterbury Republican, the hometown paper and long a supporter of Connelly's, reported his resignation as health-related. But that's gloss for the gullible. Connelly is battling colon cancer, but the darkest days of that fight are behind him. He has survived two major surgeries and intensive chemotherapy. In recent weeks, he's put weight back on and looked like more than the struggling shadow of himself. No, Connelly did not resign because of of his physical health.
Connelly resigned because his boss, the state's Criminal Justice System, issued an ultimatum: Hit the road or we will hold hearings, public hearings, about whether you should be fired. True to form, Connelly told the Commission, in effect: "You can't fire me; I quit." In so doing, he keeps a fat pension that might have been placed in jeopardy with a less tidy ending.
I've known Connelly for a couple of decades. I know him as a prosecutor who drives hard bargains with criminal defendants. In all the cases I have had with him, I can only think of one instance in which he was less than fair. On that occasion, he claimed to forget the terms and conditions of a plea we had negotiated in chambers. I thought less of him for this sham, but not so much so that I thought him corrupt. In other cases, he was fair and direct: I once plead a man facing a capital count to a manslaughter conviction in a deal brokered with Connelly, a disposition that both spared the client's life and assured that he'd get out of prison with a long life ahead of him. On another occasion, Connelly cut a suspected bank robber a huge break during plea negotiations when it became apparent that the state's case was not all it initially appeared to be. Connelly could be pragmatic when he wanted to be. I respect that about him.
But his legacy will forever be that of the man who sent more people than any other prosecutor in the state to death row. Four of the ten men waiting the needle were sent there by Connelly. His apparent taste for death and almost combative glee in sending people to the death house troubled me. He justified his decisions to seek death as often as he did by claiming merely to be doing the job lawmakers intended. They enacted a death penalty. He was merely following orders, he would suggest. It never seemed quite that simple to me.
I lost confidence in Connelly last month, when he testified under oath that he was unaware of any federal investigation targeting him for suspected corruption. It was a lawyerly evasion that was unworthy of him. While it is perhaps true that he was never sent a target letter by federal authorities notifying him of a probe -- a step taken in comparatively few cases -- he must have known the feds were sniffing at his door. Federal prosecutors interviewed members of his staff. The feds have taken files he worked on from his office. He is rumored even to have spoken to federal prosecutors. And he hired Hugh Keefe, a New Haven criminal defense lawyer, to represent him in the investigation. Claiming ignorance of an investigation against this background looked preposterous. I had the sense when this testimony was offered that the heart of darkness was descending on the Waterbury Superior Court: anyone in the courthouse claiming ignorance of the probe lives in a fantasyland.
Connelly appeared before the Criminal Justice Commission in early January. He was questioned about his receipt of basketball tickets from a professional basketball player, the relative of a man he was prosecuting. He was questioned about his trips to Las Vegas with a client of mine, Waterbury defense legend Martin Minnella. He was questioned about the receipt of free use of cars by a Waterbury-area car dealer, a man whom the feds have also questioned for making cars available at little or no cost to other public officials, including, potentially, judges. Members of the commission, including Supreme Court Justice Robert Palmer, were angered by this. At the very least, Connelly's conduct appeared improper. He was told to leave or he would be forced out. This was long overdue.
What becomes of the federal investigation? Prosecutors remain tight-lipped about prospects. One factor that led the Criminal Justice Commission to force Connelly's hand was federal rumbling that the grand jury investigation could take another six to eight months to wrap up. An investigation is still active; earlier this month federal officials met with witnesses to review one more time just who paid for certain dinners Connelly attended. It is the sort of obsessive attention to trivial details that suggests something like desperation: Federal investigators aren't crying fire anymore. Instead their choking on smoke and looking for some way to justify the time and great expense of a witch hunt.
So the king of death row has been toppled. It is a sad ending to a long career. Connelly has always been controversial. I liked that about the guy. You never had worry about being stabbed in the back by petty sniping with him: If he wanted your throat, he'd grab for it. He was a good street fighter.
So long, John. I will miss you. Perhaps I'll see you again if the feds ever get around to indicting folks in Waterbury. But something tells me this is the end of the line. It's time to write Connelly's political obituary. The task is simple: He succumbed to a sense of entitlement.