Calling it the just and moral thing to do, dozens of religious leaders from the state’s Christian and Jewish communities gathered at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford Tuesday to petition the General Assembly to repeal Connecticut’s death penalty law.
“There are times where sometimes we have theological debates about things in which we disagree, however when it comes to the death penalty this is one item that members of major denominations agree, there is consensus that the death penalty should be abolished,” said State Rep. Bruce Morris, D-Norwalk, who also serves as a minister and emceed Tuesday’s proceedings.
The religious leaders presented Morris and State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, with a letter signed by more than 300 clergy supporting passage of House Bill 5036, a bill introduced by Holder-Winfield that would abolish Connecticut’s death penalty. Speakers advocated replacing the state’s capital punishment law with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release for the state’s most violent convicted murderers.
“As people of faith, we reaffirm our opposition to the death penalty and belief in the sacredness of human life,” the letter stated. “We urge you, our elected officials, to examine the reality of Connecticut’s death penalty and seek ways to achieve true healing for those who suffer because of violent crime. Please support repeal of the death penalty. It is time for Connecticut to move beyond this broken and harmful system.”
Speakers argued that the death penalty was an “ineffective, unfair and fallible” response to violent crimes.
“The death penalty applies disproportionately to the poor and minorities and puts innocent lives at risk of execution,” Morris said. “Since 1973, 138 individuals sentenced to death were later exonerated of their crimes. When a human life is at stake, there’s simply no room for error.”
James Curry, a Bishop from the Episcopal Church, said that he has spoken to the victims of many families who feel that the death penalty only adds to their pain and suffering, because of lengthy trials and appeals and the notoriety associated with the cases.
“By abolishing the death penalty, we in Connecticut have an opportunity to affirm and respect our dignity as a society,” Curry said. “…Life imprisonment without possibility of release is a punishment that can respect the needs of a victim’s family for closure in the legal process, it can respect their needs for justice, and it can respect the memory of all their loved ones.”
Peter Rosazza, a Bishop from the Connecticut Catholic Conference, said that the Catholic Church opposes the death penalty because it violates the sanctity of life.
“Human life is a gift from god that must be respected from conception to natural death,” Rosazza said. “Our profound respect for human life also explains why we are opposed to any attack against human life, including abortion and euthanasia.”
Rosazza noted that Connecticut was the last state in New England to abolish slavery, adding “we hope it is not the last state to abolish the death penalty.”
Rabbi Donna Berman said that the death penalty went against the Jewish tradition and was not an effective deterrent.
“Even in ancient times there were those who felt that capital punishment was a deterrent to crime, but they represented the minority opinion,” Berman said. “In our own day, studies show that capital punishment is in fact not a deterrent. The truth is we can deter crime and protect society just as effectively, more effectively, with life imprisonment without the possibility of release. In this way we can avoid the very real risk of taking an innocent life.”
The death penalty has always been a hot button issue in Connecticut, but has risen in prominence the past several years due to a brutal 2007 Cheshire home invasion. Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, were sexually assaulted and murdered in their home after a failed robbery attempt. One man, Steven Hayes, 47, was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to death, while another, Joshua Komisarjevsky, is currently on trial for the crime. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Komisarjevsky.
Both houses of the legislature approved a bill to veto the death penalty in 2009, but then governor vetoed the bill, citing the Cheshire home invasion.
Holder-Winfield said he expected the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee to vote on the current bill within a week. He said he expected the bill to pass, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to sign it into law.
“The work that I’m doing on the death penalty comes out of both my religious faith and my sense for justice,” Holder-Winfield said.
During his campaign, Malloy, a former federal prosecutor, repeatedly stated he was opposed to the death penalty.
In the most recent Quinnipiac University Poll on the subject, released March 10, 67 percent of Connecticut residents said they supported the death penalty, compared to 28 percent who said they opposed it.
The event was originally intended to be held on the steps of the state capitol, but was moved indoors because of the weather.