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Connecticut Supreme Court Declares Death Penalty Is Unconstitutional

Lethal Injection Secrecy
Lethal Injection Secrecy
Brian Stull,
Senior Staff Attorney ,
ACLU Capital Punishment Project
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August 13, 2015

Today the Connecticut Supreme Court joined the growing national conversation about the abolishment of the death penalty. Tracking and often embracing points raised by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in his recent powerful dissent in Glossip v. Gross, the court reached its own conclusion for the state of Connecticut: Executions will no longer be permitted because they violate the state’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

The Connecticut Supreme Court agreed with Breyer in noting that the national trend towards abolition is gaining steam as the death penalty is now seen as wholly ineffectual and broken: Executions come far too infrequently and too long after the crime to serve the goals of retribution or deterrence; abhorrent considerations, such as race, taint the selection of who lives and who dies; and the demonstrated risk of executing an innocent person makes the entire experiment untenable.

As background, in 2012, the Connecticut Legislature repealed the death penalty, but only for capital crimes committed after the effective date of the legislation. The law left 11 men in legal limbo as they were sentenced to death for crimes committed before the repeal. Today, however, these men were saved from the death penalty. They now must instead serve life imprisonment without release.

Following Justice Breyer’s model in the Glossip dissent, the Connecticut court’s decision is a well-researched tour de force, engaging deeply in the issue as part of the conversation. The court considered the fact that seven states in the last nine years have abolished the death penalty, found that nationally executions and new death sentences are at all-time lows, and took into account the American Law Institute’s recent pronouncement that it no longer supports the use of the death penalty. The new ALI position is important because its prior model death-penalty statue, now disavowed, was a basis for the Supreme Court having approved the death penalty in a 1976 decision known as Gregg v. Georgia.

The Connecticut court took all of this and more into consideration, including a brief filed by our office and Legal Historians, and then emphasized that Connecticut leads — and not follows — on issues of justice. Thus, even before the U.S. Supreme Court struck the death penalty for minors under 18 years old and people with intellectual disability, Connecticut had done so under its own law. It’s a conversation — the state courts take direction from the U.S. Supreme Court as to federal law, but when interpreting their own laws on issues of justice and equality, the state courts can and do take the lead.

Connecticut did so today, in compelling fashion.

The conversation continues. The same reasons will be discussed, but with decreasing debate, for the conclusions are increasingly clear. I just hope the trend continues its acceleration, as these are literally questions of life and death.

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