The only real obstacle standing in the way of Connecticut’s abolishing the death penalty seems to be special pleading arising from the Cheshire home invasion case. Lawmakers want to repeal the penalty. Indeed, they voted to do so in 2009, but their vote was vetoed by then governor N. Jodi Rell, who did not want to offend Dr. William Petit, Jr., the lone survivor of the Cheshire murders, or his supporters.
Connecticut and New Hampshire are the only two states in New England to retain this savage relic of justice. Our near neighbors to the South, New York and New Jersey, have also abolished it. New Hampshire has not killed anyone in the name of justice in decades; we’ve killed but one person in the past 50 years, Michael Ross, and that is because he wanted to die. The death penalty is an expensive, unworkable hoax.
Lawmakers are currently contemplating another repeal measure, although there is talk of making the bill prospective in application. Put another way, the killing would stop as to any new defendants. We’d be free to kill those already on death row, if any of them manage to outlive the post-conviction appeals and petitions that take decades to crawl through the courts. When pressed, the rationale for drawing the line in this matter is fear about the blowback regarding the Cheshire case. Dr. Petit has, after all, appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show.
What’s necessary in Hartford just now is a little courage.
The death penalty is a costly luxury, and post-Cheshire hysteria has already cost the state far too much.
The trial of Steven Hayes is estimated to have cost taxpayers $2 million in defense costs alone. By the time his appeals have run their course, the defense will have spent as much as $6 million in its effort to put this man to death, according to Thomas Ullmann, the public defender who represented Hayes at trial. Even at a cost of $40,000 per year to incarcerate the man for the next 40 years it is far less expensive simply to incarcerate him for the rest of his natural life. He offered to plead guilty millions of wasted dollars ago.
Although Connecticut residents favor the death penalty by a margin of 67 percent to 28 percent opposed, when the question is reframed, and people are given a choice between death and life without possibility of parole, support for the death penalty falls to 48 percent of those polled, with 43 percent opposed. As the economic consequences of killing become clearer, I suspect even more Connecticut residents will come to oppose death. It is just too expensive a luxury during hard times.
We’ve already learned just how expensive rage can be in the case of the general prison population. Several years ago, in the wake of the Cheshire killings, the prison population spiked when the governor made it all but impossible for inmates to be paroled, reaching a high of more than 19,500 souls. This year, the prison population is down about 2,500 persons. As a result, we’ve already closed one prison; another prison is set to be closed in June, and there is talk of one, or possibly two, more prisons being shut down soon. That saves money and forces us to reintegrate folks into the community. It’s just too costly to toss people into prison because we’re angry, scared or simply unable to cope with the sorts of deviance caused by mental illness and drug use.
We will always need prisons. Steven Hayes has been convicted. Sentencing him to life without possibility of parole is far more cost-effective than trying to kill him. It is simply less satisfying to see silent justice done. The braying class wants blood, but blood sport is immoral, and costly. I don’t care to pay tax dollars for the privilege of making others feel good.
Let’s face it. Connecticut does not make sense. Lawmakers toying with salvaging just so we can kill Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky are playing an expensive game we can no longer afford.
But what of the claim heard so often? "If ever there were a case in which the death penalty was justified." I say put this justification theory to the test. Give Dr. Petit or someone he designates a gun and let him shoot the men himself. If he does, let him plead justification as a defense to the crime of murder. The State of Connecticut has no business doing the doctor’s dirty work for him.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.