Connecticut prosecutors challenge court's ban on death penalty

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 07, 2016 7:13 AM

By Richard Weizel

HARTFORD, Conn. (Reuters) - Connecticut prosecutors argued on Thursday that the state's Supreme Court erred when it ruled that a 2012 law ending capital punishment in the state applied to 11 inmates already on death row and asked justices to reverse their earlier decision.

The state's top court ruled 4-3 last year that a 2012 state law banning the issuance of new death sentences, but allowing executions to go ahead for people previously sentenced to death, amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

"It is the will of the people of Connecticut that these guys be executed," said Senior Assistant State's Attorney Harry Weller, adding that the court made a "critical mistake" in its August decision.

That decision came in the case of Eduardo Santiago, who was convicted of the 2000 murder of the romantic rival of an associate in exchange for a snowblower.

Thursday's arguments at the state Supreme Court focused on the case of former drug dealer Russell Peeler Jr., sentenced to death for ordering the 1999 killing of an 8-year-old boy and his mother because he believed the child had planned to testify against him in another case.

Weller argued that the court overreached its authority when it determined that legislators could not exempt people previously sentenced to death from the new ban on the punishment.

Justice Richard Palmer, who voted with the majority in supporting the ban, expressed skepticism at Weller's argument.

"For 22 years, I voted to sustain the constitutionality of the death penalty," Palmer said. "But it is now legally considered cruel and unusual punishment and no longer comports with the standards of decency in Connecticut."

Peeler's attorney, Assistant Public Defender Mark Rademacher, argued that the court would undermine the public's confidence in the criminal justice system if it reversed its earlier decision.

"They have relied on it because they assume it's over and we no longer have a death penalty," Rademacher said. "When you change your mind months later, the public is left to wonder what happened."

The court is expected to rule over the next few months.

Nineteen U.S. states have banned the death penalty, while 31 still have it on the books. Twenty-eight people were put to death in the United States last year.

Connecticut has not executed a prisoner since 2005, when serial killer Michael Ross, who admitted killing eight women in the 1980s, was put to death by lethal injection.

(Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Peter Cooney and Tom Brown)