Connecticut's top court upholds ban on death penalty in state

Connecticut Supreme Court to Revisit Death Penalty
Connecticut Supreme Court to Revisit Death Penalty

May 26 (Reuters) - Connecticut's top court on Thursday upheld its ban on executions in the state in a decision that will spare the lives of 11 death row inmates.

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The 5-2 decision by the Connecticut Supreme Court follows a 2012 law that banned the imposition of death sentences on newly committed crimes but allowed the state to proceed with the executions of inmates who had already been sentenced to die. The court in August ruled that exception was unconstitutional, amounting to a cruel and unusual punishment.

State prosecutors challenged the ruling, arguing that the court had overstepped its authority by rejecting an exception allowed by the legislature.

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The five justices said in a brief, two-paragraph opinion, that there was no reason to reverse their earlier decision. In a supporting opinion, Justice Richard Palmer cited concerns that the capital sentences are more likely to be handed down against black defendants.

"Any sentencing scheme that allows prosecutors not to seek and jurors not to impose the death penalty for any reason 'necessarily opens the door' to caprice and bias of various sorts, racial or otherwise," Palmer wrote.

Thursday's decision came in response an appeal filed by lawyers for former drug dealer Russell Peeler Jr., who was sentenced to death for ordering the 1999 killing of an 8-year-old boy and his mother because he believed the child had planned to testify against him in another case.

The court's initial decision that the death penalty was unconstitutional came in the case of Eduardo Santiago, who was convicted of the 2000 murder of the romantic rival of an associate in exchange for a snowblower.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Peter Zarella argued that the court's decisions in both cases were wrong.

"I cannot fathom how Chief Justice (Chase) Rogers and Justice (Richard) Robinson believe they respect the rule of law by supporting a decision that is completely devoid of any legal basis," Zarella wrote.

Nineteen U.S. states including Connecticut have banned the death penalty, while 31 still have it on the books.

Connecticut has not executed a prisoner since 2005, when serial killer Michael Ross, who admitted killing eight women in the 1980s, was put to death by lethal injection.

The state's Democratic Governor, Dannel Malloy, said the court's decision reflected the will of the people.

"Those currently serving on death row will serve the rest of their life in prison with no possibility of ever obtaining freedom," Malloy said in a statement. (Reporting by Scott Malone in Boston; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Originally published