Connecticut Supreme Court Hears Prosecutors' Argument Seeking to Overturn Death Penalty Ban

On January 7, the Connecticut Supreme Court heard arguments in State of Connecticut v. Russell Peeler, in which state prosecutors are seeking to overturn the court’s 4-3 decision last summer declaring Connecticut’s death penalty unconstitutional. The court ruled in August in State v. Santiago that Connecticut’s prospective legislative repeal of the death penalty, in combination with “the state’s near total moratorium on carrying out executions over the past fifty-five years,” established that “capital punishment has become incompatible with contemporary standards of decency in Connecticut.” If the court holds to that decision, the state’s remaining death row prisoners would be resentenced to life without possibility of parole. One of the four justices who voted with the majority, Justice Flemming Norcott Jr., retired recently, changing the makeup of the court. Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers, who voted with the minority in the Santiago decision, worried that the appeal presents the possibility of a “slippery slope,” saying, “Why shouldn’t the court be concerned that every time there’s a hotly contested 4-3 decision … that this isn’t just going to become a numbers game, that the parties will then wait until somebody retires or leaves the court and raise the issue again?” Prosecutors argued that the court’s decision, “eliminated the democratic process.” Senior Assistant Public Defender Mark Rademacher, who argued on behalf of the death row inmates, said, “This is a unique decision and a unique problem far different than interpreting a statute, and the majority found that it was a fairly clear statement that the death penalty no longer comports with the standards of decency of Connecticut citizens as expressed through their elected representatives.”

Justice Andrew J. McDonald - who joined the majority decision saying that Connecticut’s death penalty violated its state constitution - commented to prosecutors during argument that “there is nothing that has transpired in either fact or legal ways” that has changed the basis for the court’s decision in Santiago “other than your belief that it was wrong.” Rademacher argued, “What the state is asking this court to do … is simply breathtaking. It is asking this court to overrule a long line of cases that have affirmed the court’s authority as a constitutional matter to protect the citizens of this state against cruel and unusual punishment.”

(A. Griffin, “Supreme Court Justices Hear Arguments On Repeal Of Connecticut Death Penalty Ban,” Hartford Courant, January 7, 2016; A. Griffin, “Death Penalty Back Before State Supreme Court,” Hartford Courant, January 7, 2016) See Recent Legislation and Connecticut.