I doubt there was much celebrating on Connecticut’s death row today, where 11 condemned men sat, some for decades, awaiting execution. Not one of them will ever be free again. The quick release of a relatively painless death by lethal ejection will be denied them. Now, they await the fate common to us all — nature’s unrelenting running of her course.
By a vote of 4-3, the Connecticut Supreme Court declared the death penalty cruel and unusual under the state constitution. The decision is final. There is no higher court that can reverse this judgment. When it comes to the state constitution, the Hartford court is the highest court in the land.
The court’s ruling was simple and direct: “[T]he state constitution no longer permits the execution of individuals sentences to death” before 2012. That means Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, convicted of the 2007 Petit murders in Cheshire. It means Daniel Webb and Sedrick Cobb, men who have lingered for years in prison for crimes committed many years ago.
The 11 men on death row must now be re-sentenced, each to a term of life without the possibility of parole.
I, for one, did not see this coming. Frankly, I didn’t think a majority on the court had the courage to say the obvious: killing isn’t justice. As Ghandi once put it, an eye-for-an-eye makes the whole world blind.
When lawmakers in the General Assembly repealed the death penalty in Connecticut in 2012, they made clear that the law was prospective only. In other words, those sentenced to die before the law changed could expect no relief from the new law. It was a political compromise no doubt driven by a divided conscience: yes, the death penalty is a barbaric anachronism, but we dare not offend the legion of those demanding that those already condemned die for their crimes. Blood lust is powerful.
Eduardo Santiago, the man whose case the Court decided, committed a tawdry crime: he killed a man in exchange for a used snowmobile offered him by a jealous man. The victim? A romantic rival of the man who solicited the crime. The crime took place in 2000.
Most murders are like this, acts conceived in the hotbed of ordinary emotions, but unbounded by the restraints of common decency or the veneer of civilization. The law distinguishes between types of murder. Accept money to kill another — that’s a capital felony. Beat your neighbor to death with a claw hammer in a dispute over some trifling matter — that’s just murder.
Santiago was represented by a dogged lawyer with a special hatred for the death penalty, Mark Rademacher, a public defender. Rademacher practiced for many years in New Haven, representing those accused of crimes, and those injured by car accidents. He’s a rumpled, grumbling sort of fellow, face frozen forever in a scowl.
How, he wondered, could it be lawful to kill a man for a crime committed on Friday, but not committed the very next day, when the law had changed? Surely, fundamental fairness required that similarly situated people receive similar treatment.
Rademacher asked the Court to permit him to amend briefs filed for Santiago before the law changed. He was determined. The Court eventually relented, and four justices, led by Richard Palmer, agreed that the death penalty serves no purpose. It is rarely imposed, freakish in application, and outdated.
Will the federal courts reverse this ruling? After all, federal law still permits the Government to kill in the name of justice.
Each and every breath you take in this country submits you to the jurisdiction of two governments — state and federal. Lawyers call the resulting chaos concurrent sovereignty. Complex rules decided how state and federal courts interact. But one thing is certain: when it comes to interpreting the meaning of a state Constitution, the state’s highest court, our Connecticut Supreme Court, is the final authority.
There can be no appeal of the Santiago decision to a higher court. There is no higher court.
But what of the families of the victims, themselves regarded as victims of the crimes the men on death row committed. Aren’t they entitled to justice? Where can they now return for relief?
The courts have never offered these victims relief. All it offered was lawful process, convictions and sentences. Death solves nothing. It neither brings back to life those killed, nor rights the scales of justice.
How would you feel if one of your family members were killed? I am asked this often when I express opposition to the death penalty.
I would be undone, unstrung, beside myself and bereft of hope. Not one of these characteristics would qualify me to determine what should be done to those convicted of killing my loved ones.
The law recognizes this. It used to be an accepted maxim that no one can be a judge in their own case. We require judges to step down from a case in which they have a personal interest. Justice is dispassionate, disinterested. The decision to punish and how to punish can’t reliably be given to the bereaved.
Yet, we defer to victims and their families in the criminal courts, and are rapidly transforming Oprah Winfrey into the silent 10th justice of the Supreme Court.
Connecticut now joins those states and governments elsewhere who regard the death penalty as mere institutional savagery. It’s long overdue.
Will lawmakers now seek to repeal their repeal of the penalty — to put the bloody genie back in the bottle? They would be fools to try. The highest court in the state has exercised the power the Constitution gives it to decide, finally, what our fundamental law requires.
As of today, the death penalty is dead in Connecticut. That’s cause for celebration for those who believe the state ought never to have the power to kill. As for the men on death row, long years await them, years in which they now have little for which to hope. If anything, their lives now seem harder.