Fate of Connecticut Death Penalty On Trial

In an unusual twist, a trial targeting the death penalty is scheduled to begin Sept. 4 -- in Connecticut's maximum security prison at Somers.

John Donohue

Seven of the 11 men on the state's death row will challenge the fairness of the death penalty in a civil trial held in courtroom devised in a vacant housing unit. The inmates allege bias in how prosecutors seek the death penalty. They seek to have their death sentences overturned.

Last April, Connecticut became the 17th state to abolish the death penalty in new cases. But the law does not affect those already sentenced. They cite a major study by Stanford law professor John Donohue III, right, showing that Connecticut has imposed the death penalty in discriminatory fashion for many years. The former Yale University professor reviewed the nearly 4,700 murders in Connecticut from 1973 to 2007. He is a widely published expert in both law and statistics, and a good friend of mine since the 1970s,

"A comprehensive assessment of this process ... reveals a troubling picture," he concluded. "Overall, the state's record of handling death-eligible cases represents a chaotic and unsound criminal justice policy that serves neither deterrence nor retribution."

Dan Malloy

The state maintains that the process has been administered fairly.  A video feed of the non-jury civil trial will be available for the public at Rockville Superior Court, about 15 miles from the prison.

In Connecticut, Gov. Dan Malloy, left, signed the bill abolishing the state's death penalty after General Assembly passage. Malloy is a Democrat, as were most legislators voting for abolition. The fight is an issue in the fall elections, when all 36 State Senate and 151 State House seats are up for election.

State prosecutors disagree with the Donohue study's findings. The Associated Press reported further:

"The inmates involved in the lawsuit include killers condemned before 2008: Cobb, Daniel Webb, Richard Reynolds, Robert Breton, Jesse Campbell, Lazale Ashby and Todd Rizzo. Three other death row inmates, Russell Peeler Jr., Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, are not part of the lawsuit. The 11th man on death row, Eduardo Santiago, had his death sentence overturned by the state Supreme Court in June and awaits a new penalty phase. He's also not part of the lawsuit. Of the 11 men on death row, six are black, four are white and one is Hispanic. Of their 15 victims, 10 were white, four were black and one was Hispanic."

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Related News Coverage

Associated Press / Danbury News-Times, Trial challenging Ct.'s death penalty to begin, Dave Collins, Sept. 3, 2012. One of the most unusual trials in recent memory in Connecticut is set to begin this week, when seven of the 11 men on the state's death row will be brought into a makeshift courtroom at a prison in Somers as they challenge the fairness of the death penalty. The inmates are suing the state, alleging racial and geographic biases in how prosecutors seek the death penalty and seeking to have their death sentences overturned. After seven years of legal wrangling, the trial is scheduled to start Wednesday. "The issue is whether the death penalty in Connecticut has been administered in a discriminatory or arbitrary way," said David Golub, a Stamford attorney representing condemned killer Sedrick Cobb.

New York Times, A Trial on Death Row, Lincoln Caplan, Sept. 1, 2012. An extraordinary trial is scheduled to begin Wednesday in Connecticut, held at the prison housing the state’s death row. The petitioners are inmates sentenced to death for violent felonies, who are seeking to have their sentences reduced to life without parole on the ground that the death penalty in Connecticut is unconstitutional because it has been randomly imposed on a small group of people. In April, Connecticut became the 17th state to abolish the death penalty and the fifth in five years. But that law does not apply to those already sentenced. The inmates in this case will be presenting evidence compiled by John Donohue, a Stanford law professor, who studied how capital punishment was imposed in every Connecticut murder case from 1973 (when the state passed a death penalty law) to 2007. His analysis dispelled the erroneous claim that only the “worst of the worst” among criminals are given the death penalty. Instead, he found that the penalty has been applied with “arbitrariness and discrimination” based on race and geography, and that death row inmates are indistinguishable from other violent offenders who escaped capital punishment. The study was commissioned by a court-appointed lawyer for Sedrick Cobb, who was sentenced to death in 1991. Mr. Cobb was allowed to challenge the unfairness involved in Connecticut’s use of the death penalty through this state habeas corpus action, and others on death row joined him as petitioners. An expert for the state has failed repeatedly to undermine the credibility of the study, perhaps because there’s no way to refute such clear evidence of arbitrariness and discrimination.

CNN, Connecticut becomes 17th state to abolish death penalty, David Ariosto, April 25, 2012. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy signed a bill into law Wednesday that abolishes the death penalty, making his state the 17th in the nation to abandon capital punishment and the fifth in five years to usher in a repeal. The law is effective immediately, though prospective in nature, meaning that it would not apply to those already sentenced to death. It replaces the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of release as the state's highest form of punishment.

New York Times, Death Penalty Repeal Goes to Connecticut Governor, Peter Applebome, April 11, 2012. After more than nine hours of debate, the Connecticut House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to repeal the state’s death penalty, following a similar vote in the State Senate last week. Gov. Dan Malloy, a Democrat, has said he will sign the bill, which would make Connecticut the 17th state — the 5th in five years — to abolish capital punishment for future cases. His Malloy’s signature will leave New Hampshire and Pennsylvania as the only states in the Northeast that still have the death penalty. New Jersey repealed it in 2007. New York’s statute was ruled unconstitutional by the state’s highest court in 2004, and lawmakers have not moved to fix the law.

New York Times, The Random Horror of the Death Penalty, Lincoln Caplan, Jan. 8, 2012. The Supreme Court has not banned capital punishment, as it should, but it has long held that the death penalty is unconstitutional if randomly imposed on a handful of people. An important new study based on capital cases in Connecticut provides powerful evidence that death sentences are haphazardly meted out, with virtually no connection to the heinousness of the crime. A number of studies in the last three decades have shown that black defendants are more likely to be sentenced to death if their victim is white rather than black. But defenders of capital punishment often respond to those studies by arguing that the “worst of the worst” are sentenced to death because their crimes are the most egregious.

Hartford Courant, Study Shows Scales Of Justice Askew When It Comes To Death Penalty, 'The Worst Killers Very Frequently Do Not Get It,' Rick Green, Jan. 12, 2012.  Now that the Cheshire killers are headed to death row, we can all breathe easy, knowing that Connecticut sparingly, but justly, gives the worst of the worst the death penalty.  If only that were the case. A former Yale Law School professor's long-running study now concludes that while extremely rare, the death penalty is a largely random punishment that often hangs on the accused's race and where in Connecticut the crime took place.


Catching Our Attention on other Justice, Media & Integrity Issues

Bloomberg Business Week, Former SEAL’s Book Reveals Classified Information: Pentagon, John Walcott, Sept. 4, 2012.  The Pentagon’s chief spokesman said for the first time that a book written by a former Navy SEAL who participated in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden contained classified information. "Sensitive and classified information is contained in the book,” spokesman George Little said today at a Pentagon news conference. The comment escalates a conflict between the Pentagon and the author who wrote “No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden.” Little has previously said the author, who wrote under the pen-name “Mark Owen,” violated a non-disclosure agreement he signed as a Navy SEAL by not submitting the book for pre-publication review. The author’s attorney, Robert Luskin, has said a 2007 agreement “invites but by no means requires” pre-publication review. Luskin didn’t immediately respond to phone and e-mailed requests for comment today. The book was scheduled for publication today by Dutton, a unit of Penguin Group USA. The author, first identified by Fox News, is Matt Bissonnette, 36, of La Mirada, California, who was a member of the elite counterterrorism SEAL Team Six that killed bin Laden. In the book, Bissonnette says he took steps to ensure that he wouldn’t be inadvertently releasing classified information and that he hired a former special-operations attorney to review the manuscript.

Wayne Madsen, Retaliation against Siegelman has roots in Bush 41 crimes, Wayne Madsen Report, Sept. 4, 2012. (Subscription required.) The re-imprisonment of former Alabama Democratic Governor Don Siegelman by George W. Bush-appointed U.S. Judge Mark E. Fuller is part of a political retaliation process that has its roots in the Iran-contra scandal, according to a high-level WMR source.

Institute for Political Economy, The Republicans Cross the Rubicon, Paul Craig Roberts, Sept. 4, 2012. Does anyone remember when National Public Radio was an independent voice? During the 1980s NPR was continually on the case of the Reagan administration. NPR certainly had a Democratic slant, and a lot of its reporting about the Reagan administration was one-sided. Yet, NPR was an independent voice, and it sometimes got things correct.Today the entire “mainstream media” is closed to truth-tellers. The US media is Washington’s propaganda ministry. The US media has only one function – to lie for Washington. What reminded me of NPR’s surrender was NPR’s August 31 report with its two regular talking voice political pundits discussing the Republican Convention and Romney’s speech. After witnessing the Republicans at their nominating convention at Tampa violate all their own rules and ride roughshod over the Ron Paul delegates, one expected some discussion of the Republican Party’s refusal to allow Ron Paul to be placed in nomination or his delegate account to be announced. The operative question was obvious: How can the American people trust the Republicans with the awesome power of the executive branch when the Republican Party just finished demonstrating for all to see its Stalinist qualities by crushing the anti-war, anti-police state wing of its party?

[Editor's Note: Dr. Paul Craig Roberts is a scholar long associated with conservative organizations, and also was assistant Treasury secretary during the Reagan administration and associate editor of the Wall Street Journal.]

Legal Schnauzer, Why Were No Opinions Issued On Appeals of Alabama Hunting-Club Lawsuits? Roger Shuler, Sept. 4, 2012. The legal profession reeks of dirty secrets, and one of my favorites is this: Many federal judges do not write the opinions they issue. Attorney William Domnarski shined light on the subject in a recent op-ed piece for The New York Times, noting that ghost-written judicial opinions raise serious questions about the integrity of federal courts.  Law clerks write the opinions for almost all federal appellate judges, Domnarski writes, and it stands to reason that the practice also is common in federal trial courts. So what is the public to make of instances where federal appellate judges do no work at all on a case before them? That apparently is what happened on a pair of lawsuits that originated in Birmingham, alleging that corrupt lawyers and judges used a hunting club as a place to fix Jefferson County divorce cases.

New York Times, Judges Should Write Their Own Opinions, William Domnarski,  May 31, 2012. There is a crisis in the federal appellate judiciary. No, I’m not referring to the high number of judicial vacancies or overloaded case dockets — though those are real problems. The crisis I have in mind rarely is discussed because it raises too many embarrassing questions. I’m talking about the longstanding and well-established practice of having law clerks ghostwrite judges’ legal opinions. We have become too comfortable with the troubling idea that judging does not require that judges do their own work.

Truthout / Huffington Post, John Cusack Interviews Law Professor Jonathan Turley About Obama Administration’s War On the Constitution, Sept. 1 ,2012. Now that the Republican primary circus is over, I started to think about what it would mean to vote for Obama...Since mostly we hear from the daily hypocrisies of Mitt and friends, I thought we should examine "our guy" on a few issues with a bit more scrutiny than we hear from the "progressive left," which seems to be little or none at all. Three markers — the Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the escalation speech at West Point, and the recent speech by Eric Holder — crossed that Rubicon line for me...Mr. Obama, the Christian president with the Muslim-sounding name, would heed the admonitions of neither religion's prophets about making war and do what no empire or leader, including Alexander the Great, could do: he would, he assured us "get the job done in Afghanistan." And so we have our democratic president receiving the Nobel Peace Prize as he sends 30,000 more troops to a ten-year-old conflict in a country that's been war-torn for 5,000 years.