Connecticut Supreme Court Reaffirms Retroactive Death Penalty Repeal

In a 5-2 decision issued May 26, the Connecticut Supreme Court reaffirmed its August 2015 decision in State v. Santiago that the death penalty violates Connecticut's state constitution. Connecticut prospectively repealed the death penalty in 2012, leaving eleven men on death row. In Santiago, the court ruled that "capital punishment has become incompatible with contemporary standards of decency in Connecticut," and replaced the eleven remaining death sentences with life without parole. Prosecutors unsuccessfully asked the court to reconsider its 4-3 decision in Santiago, and then, after one of the members of the majority left the court, sought to overturn the decision in the next capital appeal to reach the court, State v. Peeler. However, the new Justice, Richard A. Robinson, and Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers, one of the Santiago dissenters, joined the other justices from the Santiago majority in applying Santiago to overturn Russell Peeler's death sentences and direct that he be sentenced to two terms of life without parole. In her concurring opinion, Chief Justice Rogers wrote, "I feel bound by the doctrine of stare decisis in this case for one simple reason—my respect for the rule of law. To reverse an important constitutional issue within a period of less than one year solely because of a change in justices on the panel that is charged with deciding the issue, in my opinion, would raise legitimate concerns by the people we serve about the court’s integrity and the rule of law in the state of Connecticut." Justice Robinson expressed a similar sentiment in his concurring opinion: "In my view, stare decisis considerations of this court’s institutional legitimacy and stability are at their zenith in this particular case, given that the only thing that has changed since this court decided Santiago is the composition of this court." The three justices from the Santiago majority also responded to the prosecution's substantive attack on that decision. They wrote that "the persistent, long-term declines in capital punishment are just what they appear to be—evidence that contemporary standards of decency have evolved away from execution as a necessary and acceptable form of punishment" and that Connecticut's actual death penalty practices "constitute[ ] what has come to be seen as cruel and unusual."

(A. Griffin and M. Kauffman, "State Supreme Court Upholds Abolishment Of Death Penalty, Including For Death-Row Inmates," Hartford Courant, May 26, 2016; K. Bellware, "Connecticut Court Upholds Abolishing Death Penalty For Existing Death Row Inmates," Huffington Post, May 26, 2016.) Read the Connecticut Supreme Court's decision in State v. Peeler here. See Arbitrariness.