HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A sweeping decision this week by the Connecticut Supreme Court that found the death penalty no longer meets society's evolving standards of decency could be influential across a nation that is increasingly questioning the practice, legal experts said.
Thursday's ruling found capital punishment violates the Connecticut constitution, but the justices backed their decision by citing what abolitionists say are universal problems with the death penalty, including economic disparities in its use, the costs involved with appeals, the inherent cruelty involved in lengthy waits for execution, and the risk of executing innocent people.
"It reads as a missive to the U.S. Supreme Court," said Kevin Barry, a Quinnipiac University law professor and expert on death penalty law. "It is a blueprint for our nation's high court to strike down the death penalty nationally."
Thirty-one states still have capital punishment, but seven states have eliminated it in the past decade, including Nebraska in May and Maryland in 2013, which both passed legislation outlawing the death penalty.
Connecticut's abolishment is different because it comes in the form of a court ruling, one that found the 2012 state law that banned executions for future crimes did not go far enough, experts said. The court found the death penalty "no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose."
"This is one more institution saying this is too broken and it can't be fixed, and let's be done with it," said Shari Silberstein, executive director of the anti-death penalty group Equal Justice USA.
The ruling could also influence courts in states such as Maryland and New Mexico, which, like Connecticut, eliminated the death penalty only for future crimes, said Robert Blecker, a professor at New York Law School and a proponent of the limited use of capital punishment. States including Delaware, Colorado, Kansas, New Hampshire and Washington are also considering repealing the death penalty only for future crimes, he said.
"My view is that there will never be an execution of anyone who, if they had committed the same crime on the day of their execution, would not be subjected to the death penalty," said Blecker, author of the book "The Death of Punishment." ''This ruling backs that up."
The death penalty was widely used in the United States for decades until the 1960s, when questions about its fairness reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which eventually ruled capital punishment unconstitutional in 1972. After states reworked their laws, the Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty in 1976.
In recent years, the number of death sentences and executions in the U.S. has plummeted as juries take advantage of new laws offering life with no chance of parole and as prosecutors hesitate to bring capital charges because of the cost, especially at the appeals stage. In the past five years, executions have slowed again while the supply of lethal drugs has dried up as manufacturers, responding to activist pressure, have put them off limits for capital punishment.
The number of death sentences imposed last year marked a 40-year low in the country, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks information about the use of capital punishment in the United States.
There have been recent indications that the U.S. Supreme Court may be preparing to take its first broad look at the constitutionality of the death penalty since 1976, perhaps as early as this fall.
In June, Justice Stephen Breyer, in a dissent of an opinion upholding Oklahoma's use of a new lethal injection drug, said that circumstances have changed drastically over the past 40 years, and that the death penalty may now constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
"Given these changes, I believe that it is now time to reopen the question," he wrote.
One of the main tests the U.S Supreme Court would look at is the nation's standards of decency, Barry said. If it follows Connecticut's lead, in may not need to find that the majority of states oppose the death penalty, only that the trend is heading in an undeniable direction, he said.
But death penalty supporters may also look to Connecticut to back their position that executions should remain legal in states where it has public and legislative support.
Connecticut's ruling drew harsh criticism from the three dissenting justices and legislative Republicans, who accused the court of improperly taking on the role of policymakers.
Connecticut Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano noted that multiple lawmakers would not have voted to repeal the death penalty in Connecticut if that ban had applied to those already on death row.
In her dissent, Connecticut Chief Justice Chase Rogers wrote court ignored the most obvious evidence that society still accepts the death penalty.
"The legislature, which represents the people of the state and is the best indicator of contemporary societal mores, expressly retained the death penalty for crimes committed before the effective date of (the repeal)," she wrote.
Associated Press Legal Affairs Writer Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.