In Connecticut, Death Row Inmates Get Trial on Sentencing Fairness


Four months have passed since Connecticut became the 16th state to abolish the death penalty, but the fate of several men still lingering on the state’s death row is far from certain. The 7-year-long battle to overturn their sentences continues.

On Wednesday (September 5), those men — seven of the state’s last 11 death row inmates — will finally get their day in an unconventional court, the Associated Press reports. In a makeshift courtroom set up at the high-security state prison in Somers, the men, whose sentences were not affected when lawmakers repealed the death penalty in April, will challenge the seldom-used punishment on grounds that its application was based partly on race and geography and did not apply to only the most serious crimes.

To make those points, the plaintiffs will point to a Stanford professor’s study of 4,686 murders in Connecticut between 1973 and 2007, whose findings Connecticut justice officials dispute.

Just 205 of those murder cases were eligible for the death penalty and resulted in homicide convictions, John Donohue found, and 138 of those cases were considered capital felonies. Ultimately, 29 cases went to death penalty sentencing hearing, which resulted in nine death sentences and an execution in 2005, according to the study, commissioned by the public defender’s office. 

“The extreme infrequency with which the death penalty is administered in Connecticut raises a serious question as to whether the state’s death penalty regime is serving any legitimate social purpose,” Donahue wrote. “Overall, the state’s record of handling death-eligible cases represents a chaotic and unsound criminal justice policy that serves neither deterrence nor retribution.”

In the study, Donohue also found that a minority defendant charged with murdering a white person was more likely to receive a harsher sentence than white defendants charged with murdering a white person — despite the fact that Connecticut’s white-on-white murders tended to be more egregious. Additionally, cases charged as capital felonies in five of 13 judicial districts were on average less egregious than those that weren’t.

“At best, the Connecticut system haphazardly singles out a handful for execution from a substantial array of horrible murders,” he wrote. “Arbitrariness and discrimination are defining features of the state’s capital punishment regime.”

Six men on Connecticut’s death row are black, while four are white and one is Hispanic, AP reports. Ten of their 15 victims were white, four were black and one was Hispanic.

A legal expert hired by state prosecutors has disputed Donohue’s findings, saying there is no racial bias in Connecticut’s sentencing.

Donohue is not the only researcher to conclude bias in death penalty sentencing. In 2007, David Jacobs, a professor of sociology at The Ohio State University, found that blacks convicted of killing whites were more than twice as likely to be executed as whites convicted of killing non-whites.

Hispanics who killed whites also faced a greater likelihood of execution than were whites who killed non-whites, but to a lesser degree, according to the study of sentencing in 16 states between 1973 and 2002.

Though emotional debates over the death penalty and its application continue across the country, some states — like Connecticut — have moved away from such sentencing in recent years. In 2011, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber placed a moratorium on death sentences. That year, fewer people were sentenced to die in the U.S. than in any year since 1976. This November, California voters will decide whether to abolish its death penalty.


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