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Working to 'Create a (Death Penalty) Law that Actually Works in the Name of Justice'

Local lawmakers look to streamline the state's appeals process.

Both men convicted of carrying out one of the most heinous crimes in Connecticut’s history have now been sentenced to death. But, under current laws, chances are slim that Cheshire home invasion killers Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes will ever be executed by lethal injection.

Currently in Connecticut there is no limit to the amount of appeals someone sentenced to death can file.

“They can literally file these appeals for the rest of their lives,” said State Rep. David K. Labriola, R-Oxford, who has led the fight on the House floor to both keep the death penalty despite attempts to repeal it and to streamline the appeals process.

Labriola is one of who fear that and will never get lethal injection for the brutal murders of Cheshire mom Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11.

Two years ago, the legislature voted to repeal the death penalty before then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, vetoed the bill. Current Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, has vrepeal if it passes the House and Senate. But last year, two state senators changed their stances on the death penalty law and voted not to abolish it, therefore leaving state-issued execution on the books.

Labriola, a defense attorney with a practice based in Naugatuck and a ranking member on the state’s judiciary committee, said the makeup of both legislative bodies has not changed since last year so he doubts a repeal will happen in the upcoming session, which is good for his cause.

“There are just some crimes that are so bad that they cry out for justice for the victim’s families,” he said.

He said other states have reasonable time limits – between seven-to-10 years - on appeals, and he believes there's no reason Connecticut cannot follow suit.

“We can do it here, and we should do it here,” he said, adding that arguments against the death penalty that abolishing it would save money are false because “if we abolish the death penalty, people will fight just as hard to avoid life in prison. And certainly housing these inmates for the rest of their lives is going to cost more.”

Labriola said he polled his 131st District (all of Oxford and parts of Naugatuck and Southbury) and 80 percent of people who responded said they support the use of the death penalty for the worst crimes and that statewide studies have shown similar results.

“The people of Connecticut want a working death penalty for the perpetrators of the worst crimes, such as Hayes and Komisarjevsky,” he said.

There are plenty of people who disagree with Labriola on the death penalty, including one of Labriola’s close friends and colleagues in state government, state Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, who is also a defense attorney.

When contacted Friday, Rebimbas said she preferred not to talk at this time about the death penalty. Speaking of the Komisarjevsky punishment, Rebimbas said, “I think the jury reached the right decision with the task they were provided. Our judicial system is not an easy process for the families or jury to endure.”

Putting a Face on the Death Penalty Debate

The pain endured at the hands of the lone survivor of the Cheshire home invasion – Dr. William Petit – seems unbearable. Through intense pain and suffering, Dr. Petit has dutifully fought to see justice done for his family: He has done all he can to see that Komisarjesky and Hayes, plus the nine others on death row, actually receive their punishments.

Petit has put a face on the death penalty debate in Connecticut, and he’s become the state’s most powerful voices in the fight to preserve state executions. People listen when he talks because of his eloquent public speaking skills and because they know of the trauma he’s been through.

Petit was beaten and tied up in his basement while Komisarjesky and Hayes raped his wife and 11-year-old daughter and ultimately set the house on fire, leaving all four to die. Petit was disoriented and severely beaten but made it out alive. His family did not.

Since the attack, Petit’s story has changed many people’s opinions on use of capitol punishment.

After Komisarjevsky was sentenced to death on Friday, Petit spoke about why he believes Connecticut needs to streamline its appeals process in death penalty cases.

The following is Petit’s response as transcribed from a video on YouTube of a news conference with Petit outside the federal courthouse in New Haven on Friday, minutes after Komisarjevsky was sentenced to death (see attached):

“I think the Connecticut legislature needs to get its act together. I think other states like Virginia do it appropriately. And there really should be expedited appeals to the state Supreme Court. If that is denied, then I think an execution date should be set. And if that’s appealed, I think the state and federal habeas appeals should be done simultaneously. If those are found to not have any merit, then I think an execution date should be set again.

“It works in Virginia, and it’s hard for me to believe we’re not as bright as the people in Virginia and can’t create a law that actually works in the name of justice and in the name of families. So yeah, we don’t lose a lot of sleep over it, but we think the appeals system in the death penalty cases - in Connecticut the legislators make kind of a joke of it, and they really need to do something about it to fix it, although clearly there are those whose intentions are to try to repeal the death penalty.”

Personal Stories

Some of the legislators working on both keeping the death penalty and fixing the appeals process have personal stories behind their work.

State Rep. Alfred Adinolfi, R-Cheshire, was a neighbor of the Petit family on Sorghum Mill Drive.

“I was there that morning; I saw the fire,” he said. “It was just terrible.”

Terrible is the way Adinolfi describes the current appeals process, as well.

“Ninety nine percent of the appeals that go in are thrown out before they even get to a judge,” said Adinolfi, who is also on the judiciary committee and whose district covers parts of Cheshire, Wallingford and Hamden. “It’s just a way of delaying things forever. Perhaps we should limit it to say five years, especially when the individuals have pleaded guilty and there is no doubt about their guilt.”

He said the current laws favor murderers instead of the people they should support – victims and their families.

“We have tried to change that many times over the years in the way of amendments, but we haven’t been successful,” he said. “We need to keep trying.”

State Rep. Jeffrey Berger, D-Waterbury, a retired Waterbury police officer who spent 20 years in the uniform, said he supports the death penalty and has seen how the never-ending appeals process in this state affects victims' families.

His friend and former co-worker, Walter T. Williams III, was shot and killed in the line of duty on Dec. 18, 1992. The man who shot him, Richard Reynolds, a New York City crack dealer, was sentenced to death by lethal injection in 1995; 16 years later, Reynolds still sits in a prison cell.

In that time, Berger said Williams’ family and friends have seen many milestones, including Williams’ son going through high school, college and into the Marine Corps. One moment that has not come in that time is Reynolds getting the penalty he received in a court of law.

“We’ve seen people go on with their lives and be affected by this tragedy, but meanwhile the guy who caused all of this pain and suffering is still alive,” Berger said.

He said his belief in the death penalty is not vengeful.

“It’s not an eye-for-an-eye or a tooth-for-a-tooth,” he said. “It’s just the law and it protects us and helps investigators.”

Unlike Labriola, Berger believes abolishing the death penalty, or at least attempts at it, can happen in the coming legislative session. 

“So the argument now becomes, for those who support the death penalty, streamlining the appeals process,” he said. “And for people who are abolitionists, it’s, 'What do we do with the 11 people on death row now?' So that’s the fight.”

And while the debates continue in Hartford, history shows that inmates will continue to sit on death row year after year until they either die by means other than lethal injection or simply give up their appeals.

Connecticut has executed just one person since 1960 – serial killer Michael Ross, in 2005. After 18 years of appeals, Ross decided to give up the appeals process and, despite attempts by public defenders and others to save him, was given lethal injection in May 2005.

Steve Garvin December 12, 2011 at 08:37 PM
Can we please get a working death penelty in this state.
Justin December 12, 2011 at 08:46 PM
Ill second that!

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