NEW VOICES: Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Says Death Penalty 'Incompatible with Standards of Human Decency'

On May 29, the Connecticut Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of Eduardo Santiago, one of eleven men who remained on the state’s death row despite the recent abolition of the death penalty for future crimes. Justice Lubbie Harper, Jr., (pictured) agreed with the majority’s reasoning and conclusions about Santiago, but also came to the conclusion that the state’s death penalty as applied to those still on death row is unconstitutional. Justice Harper wrote, “It is clear to me both that capital punishment violates our state’s constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and that this punishment is systematically plagued by an unacceptable risk of arbitrary and racially discriminatory imposition that undermines the fairness and integrity of Connecticut’s criminal justice system as a whole.” He concluded, “Upon review of both the objective evidence of prevailing norms of human decency, as well as other relevant social and legal factors, I cannot but conclude that capital punishment is incompatible with evolving standards of human decency in our society.”

With respect to the issue of innocence, Justice Harper wrote: “I note also the obvious fact that the irreversible nature of the death penalty makes the possibility of the conviction and execution of a factually innocent person uniquely dangerous.”

On the justification of the death penalty based on retribution, he wrote:

I acknowledge that many in our society desire the executions of others because of the severity of the crimes they have committed, and I recognize that some of these people hold the principled position that punishment is justified as retribution for past wrongs committed. I nonetheless conclude that particularly with respect to capital punishment, which by definition applies only to crimes of such magnitude that they are likely to incite anger and even hatred, there is no reliable line between retribution and revenge, and too easily rational moral calculus gives way to righteous but unprincipled rage. If it is upon this rage that the death penalty depends, then that penalty cannot stand.

The defendant in the case before the court was sentenced to death while his two co-defendants were sentenced to life in prison. The Supreme Court unanimously ordered a new penalty phase for Santiago, saying that his trial judge did not allow “significant and relevant” evidence that might have led the jury to give a lesser sentence.

(A. Griffin, “Death Sentence Reversed In Snowmobile Murder-For-Hire Case,” Hartford Courtant, June 4, 2012; Connecticut v. Eduardo Santiago, SC 17413 (May 29, 2012) (Harper, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part)). Read more New Voices. Listen to DPIC’s podcast on U.S. Supreme Court decisions.