Capital Punishment Battle Heats Up at Capitol

California Corrections via WikiMedia Commons

As the legislature's Judiciary Committee prepares to approve a bill repealing capital punishment in Connecticut, a bipartisan group of conservatives is readying a counter-measure aimed at curbing death-row appeals.

The conservatives announced Monday at a press conference attended by law enforcement officers and relatives of homicide victims that their effort to speed up executions will come as a floor amendment to the repeal bill.

"We are proud to be here today to stand up for Connecticut's innocent victims of murder. We are here today to defend justice and public safety," said Rep. Steve Mikutel, D-Griswold.

Death penalty supporters conceded that the Judiciary Committee is certain to approve and send a repeal bill to the House floor this week no later than Friday. A vote on the bill could come as early as Tuesday.

Mikutel was joined by legislators, police officers and the Rev. Stuart Brush of Woodbury, who lost one son, Dean, to murder in 1983 and a second, John, to a suicide in 1991 that he says was a reaction to Dean's death.

Brush held aloft photos of his two sons.

"Leverage, that's what the death penalty provides," Brush said, calling it a tool used by prosecutors to obtain plea bargains.

"We know capital punishment saves innocent lives," Mikutel said.

"Life in prison is not a deterrent. The death penalty is," said Sgt. Rich Holton, the president of the Hartford Police Union.

The question of whether the death penalty deters murders has been the subject of academic studies in the past decade, primarily from economists trying to apply a cost-benefit calculus to capital punishment.

About a dozen studies have found that every execution prevents from three to 18 murders, with some self-described liberal academics saying the research has prompted them to reconsider capital punishment.

"States that choose life imprisonment, when they might choose capital punishment, are ensuring the deaths of a large number of innocent people," wrote Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago and Adrian Vermeule of Harvard in the Stamford Law Review.

But in the same December 2005 edition, two economists cautioned against drawing cause-and-effect conclusions in an article entitled, "Uses and Abuses of Empirical Evidence in the Death Penalty Debate."

"We find that the existing evidence for deterrence is surprisingly fragile, and even small changes in specifications yield dramatically different results," wrote Justin Wolfers and John J. Donohue. "Our estimates suggest not just 'reasonable doubt' about whether there is any deterrent effect of the death penalty, but profound uncertainty."

The debate in Hartford has focused more on the meaning of justice than on deterrence. Opponents of repeal have framed the question around a horrific triple murder: the deaths of a mother and two daughters in Cheshire in 2007.