Connecticut's Death Penalty Stays Dead

The Connecticut Supreme Court rejected an attempt by prosecutors to reverse last year's abolition ruling.

The Connecticut Supreme Court hears a case in February 2016. (Jessica Hill / AP)

The Connecticut Supreme Court reaffirmed Thursday its decision to abolish capital punishment last year, turning back a last-ditch effort by state prosecutors to revive the death penalty in the state.

In an unsigned one-page opinion in Connecticut v. Peeler, the court applied without fanfare its earlier ruling in Santiago v. Connecticut, which eliminated the state’s remaining death sentences last year. Five of the court’s seven justices concurred in Thursday’s order.

Connecticut took an unusual path to abolishing the death penalty. The state repealed its death-penalty statute in 2012, thereby eliminating it as an option in future trials. But legislators chose not to alter the sentences of 11 inmates already on death row, leaving the possibility that executions could still take place in the state some day.

In August 2015, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled those inmates’ death sentences unconstitutional in a 4-3 decision in Santiago. The majority framed its reasoning around a broader attack on capital punishment’s flaws; the dissenters condemned the ruling as a reflection of the majority’s moral sentiment toward the death penalty.

Prosecutors asked the court to reverse that ruling in Peeler. Russell Peeler received two death sentences from a Bridgeport jury for murdering a mother and her 8-year-old son in 1999, but the case had little to do with his crime or conviction. Instead, as the Hartford Courant noted, prosecutors took aim at Santiago:

Prosecutors said in deciding the Santiago case, the court "did not confine its analysis" to the actual claim raised—whether enacting the 2012 law invalidated the death sentences of those sentenced before the law went into effect. The court made its ruling, prosecutors said, "for reasons having little or nothing to do with" enactment of the 2012 law and "erred in its ruling on lines of analysis and authorities the parties had not discussed."

Prosecutors also argued that the justices relied on "flawed historical analysis" to justify their "departure from well-established principles of law" and incorrectly determined that state residents prior to the 1818 constitution gave the high court the authority to act independently to invalidate a penalty.

At oral arguments in January, some of the justices shared their discomfort with reversing their own decision so rapidly. Justice Flemming Norcott Jr., who voted with the majority in Santiago, had also retired since the ruling and been replaced by Justice Richard Robertson.

“At a minimum, it looks awfully odd to have a case of this magnitude decided differently within months simply because the panel changes,” Justice Richard Palmer told the lawyers. “That's really what would be happening here."

Thursday’s decision reduced Peeler’s sentence to life without parole. Connecticut is one of 19 states to have abolished capital punishment. Thirty-one others retain death-penalty statutes, though only a handful of them carry out executions or regularly impose death sentences.