Connecticut Trial To Challenge Systemic Bias in Death Sentencing

Although Connecticut abolished the death penalty for future offenses in 2012, eleven inmates remained on death row. Now an unusual trial will soon begin challenging the death sentences of seven of those inmates, not because of the legislature’s repeal action, but because of evidence of racial and geographical biases in deciding those sentences. The inmates will principally rely on a study by Stanford University professor John Donohue, who reviewed nearly 4,700 murders in the state from 1973 to 2007. The study found that minority defendants whose victims were white were three times more likely to receive a death sentence than white defendants whose victims were white. Professor Donahue also found disparities along geographic lines. For example, death penalty-eligible defendants in Waterbury, Connectiuct, were sentenced to death at much higher rates than similar defendants elsewhere in the state. The study concluded, “A comprehensive assessment of this process … reveals a troubling picture. Overall, the state’s record of handling death-eligible cases represents a chaotic and unsound criminal justice policy that serves neither deterrence nor retribution.”

Of the 11 men who were on Connecticut’s death row when the death penalty was abolished, 6 were black, 4 were white and 1 was Hispanic. Of their 15 victims, 10 were white, 4 were black and 1 was Hispanic.

(D. Collins, “Trial challenging Conn.’s death penalty to begin,” Associated Press, September 3, 2012). See Arbitrariness and Race. Listen to DPIC’s podcasts on Arbitrariness and on Race.