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Connecticut lawmakers to vote on death penalty

By David Ariosto, CNN
updated 7:21 PM EDT, Wed April 4, 2012
Gov. Dannel Malloy said he'll sign a bill banning the death penalty in Connecticut if it reaches his desk.
Gov. Dannel Malloy said he'll sign a bill banning the death penalty in Connecticut if it reaches his desk.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The bill is thought to enjoy majority support in each chamber of the state legislature
  • Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, has vowed to sign the measure into law should it reach his desk
  • Proposed law is prospective, would not apply to those already sentenced
  • If passed, Connecticut would be 5th state in 5 years to abolish capital punishment

(CNN) -- Lawmakers in Connecticut are grappling with a bill that would do away with the death penalty and make their state the fifth in five years to abolish capital punishment.

The bill is thought to enjoy majority support in each chamber of the state legislature, which are both Democrat-controlled, and would replace death penalty sentences with life imprisonment.

Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, has vowed to sign the measure into law should it reach his desk, his office said.

State senators could vote as early as Wednesday, though officials say they expect the debate to drag on well into the evening hours and could possibly surface for a vote on Thursday.

If passed, the bill would go to the state House next week where lawmakers are overwhelmingly expected to vote in its favor.

"For everyone, it's a vote of conscience," said Senate President Donald Williams Jr., a Democrat who says he's long supported a repeal. "We have a majority of legislators in Connecticut in favor of this so that the energies of our criminal justice system can be focused in a more appropriate manner."

In 2009, state lawmakers in both houses tried to pass a similar bill, but were ultimately blocked by then-Gov. Jodi Rell, a Republican.

Sixteen states have abolished capital punishment, with California voters expected to take up the measure in November.

Capital punishment has existed in Connecticut since its colonial days. But the state was forced to review its death penalty laws beginning in 1972 when a Supreme Court decision required greater consistency in its application. A moratorium was then imposed until a 1976 court decision upheld the constitutionality of capital punishment.

Since then, Connecticut juries have handed down 15 death sentences. Of those, only one person has actually been executed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonpartisan group that studies death penalty laws.

Michael Ross, a convicted serial killer, was put to death by lethal injection in 2005 after giving up his appeals.

"It's not a question of whether it's morally wrong, it's just that it isn't working," said Richard Dieter, the group's executive director. "I think when you hear of 15 to 20 years of uncertain appeals, that's not closure and that's not justice. It's a slow, grinding process."

Eleven people are currently on death row in Connecticut, including Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, who both were sentenced for their roles in the 2007 murders of the Petit family in Cheshire, Connecticut.

The high-profile case drew national attention and sparked conversations about home security and capital punishment.

Dr. William Petit, the sole survivor in that attack, has remained a staunch critic of repeal efforts.

"We believe in the death penalty because we believe it is really the only true, just punishment for certain heinous and depraved murders," Petit told CNN affiliate WFSB.

Advocates of the existing law say capital punishment can act as a criminal deterrent and provides justice for victims.

Opponents say capital punishment is often applied inconsistently, can be discriminatory and has not proven to be an effective deterrent. They also point to instances in which wrongful convictions have been overturned with new investigative methods, including forensic testing.

"Mistakes can be made and you may not know about it until science later exposes them," said Dieter.

But a recent Quinnipiac poll found that 62% of Connecticut residents think abolishing the death penalty is "a bad idea."

"No doubt the gruesome Cheshire murders still affect public opinion regarding convicts on death row," said Quinnipiac University Poll Director Douglas Schwartz.

That number jumps to 66% among Connecticut men, and drops to 58% among the state's women, according to the poll.

The Senate's proposed law is prospective in nature, meaning that it would not apply to those already sentenced to death.

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