For more than fifty years, Connecticut has had a death penalty statute under which no one was executed except two convicted men who waived appeals and “volunteered” for death at the hands of the state. They were serial killers Joseph Taborsky who died by electrocution in 1960, and Michael Ross, by lethal injection in 2005. In this Kafkaesque situation no one was executed unless they wanted to be. The contradiction was blatant and absurd.
Although systematic efforts to abolish capital punishment in Connecticut began in the pre–Civil War era, the recent finale had unusual twists and turns in governance. In 2009, for the first time in the history of colony and state, the General Assembly with a majority of Democrats voted to end the death penalty, but Republican governor Jodi Reill vetoed the bill. In 2012, however, Democratic governor Dannel Malloy signed a law that banned the death penalty prospectively. Public outrage over the heinous murders of the Petit family in Chesire in 2007 meant that the perpetrators Steven J. Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky were still subject to execution.
The political expediency of prospective abolition left the oddity of eleven condemned men
still on death row. Prompted by the prospective ban and the appeal of death row inmate Eduardo Santiago, the State Supreme Court on August 13, 2015, sought consistency by ruling the death penalty unconstitutional in a narrow 4-to-3 decision. In its opinion, the court relied extensively on my book, The Solemn Sentence of Death: Capital Punishment in Connecticut, to document that capital punishment historically overwhelming fell on those on the margins of society and that significant limits on the capital code began to be set during the seventeenth century.
Prosecutors appealed, arguing that the high court had overstepped its authority. They too cited my book, correctly arguing that historically the legislature, not the judiciary, had exercised oversight of the death penalty. Unmentioned in the appeal, however, was that the state and federal courts, in establishing guidelines and a lengthy appeals process in death penalty cases, had in effect, at least in Connecticut, obviated executions unless the condemned “volunteered.”
On May 26, 2016, the State Supreme Court in State v. Peeler upheld its 2015 total abolition in a 5-to-2 decision. Rather than usurping its authority, the court made overt its decades-long, covert involvement in blocking executions laying the death penalty with its multiple contradictions to a final rest.
Lawrence B. Goodheart is Professor Emeritus of History at University of Connecticut and author of The Solemn Sentence of Death: Capital Punishment in Connecticut (University of Massachusetts Press, 2011)