ICYMI: Connecticut Rules Death Penalty Unconstitutional

By Kenrya Rankin Aug 18, 2015

Connecticut’s Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional on August 13, effectively pardoning 11 people who are currently on death row. The state abolished the death penalty back in 2012, but did not make the law retroactive.

In the case, State v. Santiago, Eduardo Santiago was tried for murder for hire, a capital offense. He appealed his death sentence, and while the court did not find that putting him to death was unconstitutional at the time, it did find that there were issues in his original trial that warranted a new sentencing hearing. While his appeal was pending, the 2012 legislation passed, abolishing the death penalty for crimes committed after April 24, 2012—which Santiago argued was grounds to take death off the table at his hearing. The court then examined his claim that “the death penalty is no longer consistent with standards of decency in Connecticut and does not serve any valid penological objective.”

In the court’s opinion, Justice Richard Palmer wrote:

First, the acceptability of imposing death as a form of judicial punishment has declined steadily over Connecticut’s nearly 400 year history. Secularization, evolving moral standards, new constitutional and procedural protections, and the availability of incarceration as a viable alternative to execution have resulted in capital punishment being available for far fewer crimes and criminals, and being imposed far less frequently, with a concomitant deterioration in public acceptance.

Second, what has not changed is that, throughout every period of our state’s history, the death penalty has been imposed disproportionately on those whom society has marginalized socially, politically, and economically: people of color, the poor and uneducated, and unpopular immigrant and ethnic groups. It always has been easier for us to execute those we see as inferior or less intrinsically worthy. 

Ultimately, the court concluded:

In prospectively abolishing the death penalty, the legislature did not simply express the will of the people that it no longer makes sense to maintain the costly and unsatisfying charade of a capital punishment scheme in which no one ever receives the ultimate punishment. Public Act 12-5 also held a mirror up to Connecticut’s long, troubled history with capital punishment: the steady replacement by more progressive forms of punishment; the increasing inability to achieve legitimate penological purposes; the freakishness with which the sentence of death is imposed; the rarity with which it is carried out; and the racial, ethnic, and socio-economic biases that likely are inherent in any discretionary death penalty system. Because such a system fails to comport with our abiding freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, we hold that capital punishment, as currently applied, violates the constitution of Connecticut.

In June, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a dissenting opinion in Glossip v. Gross that supports that idea at the federal level, citing the evidence that supports disproportionate sentencing and other flaws in the system: “But rather than try to patch up the death penalty’s legal wounds one at a time, I would ask for full briefing on a more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the Constitution.”