For those of you who have followed the recent history of capital punishment in Connecticut and the struggle over abolition, I will quote a few paragraphs. Tell me if it sounds familiar:
[We] have a fundamental belief in fairness and justice – in swift and certain justice. The death penalty as practiced [here] is neither fair nor just; and it is not swift or certain. It is not applied equally to all. It is a perversion of justice that the single best indicator of who will and will not be executed has nothing to do with the circumstances of a crime or the findings of a jury. The only factor that determines whether someone sentenced to death [here] is actually executed is that they volunteer. The hard truth is that in the [40 odd] years since [we] reinstated the death penalty, it has only been carried out on [one] volunteer who waived [his] right to appeal.
In the years since [then], many judges, district attorneys, legislators, death penalty proponents and opponents, and victims and their families have agreed that [our] system is broken.
But we have done nothing. We have avoided the question.
And during that time, a growing number of states have reconsidered their approach to capital punishment given public concern, evidence of wrongful convictions, the unequal application of the law, the expense of the process and other issues.
It goes on and on. Sadly, while the debates and the struggles and the arguments are the same, the State is not Connecticut, but rather Oregon, and the above is not an excerpt from a speech of Governor Malloy, but rather from a remarkable statement [PDF] made by Governor Kitzhaber in explaining his decision to impose a moratorium on executions in Oregon. Compare the solemn eloquence of Kitzhaber’s statement with the barbaric vengeance that spewed forth from the mouth of Edith Prague. The former is replete with compassion and realism, while the latter is devoid of any intellectual honesty.
Is there any wonder that we still seek and pursue the death penalty here in Connecticut? What more could highlight the arbitrariness of the death penalty when the same argument is utilized by Kitzhaber to justify his moratorium and by the Connecticut Supreme Court to continue to sanction this ghastly punishment [PDF]:
And while it may be convenient to blame lengthy and expensive death penalty trials and appeals on inmates “working the system,” the truth is courts (and society) continue to reinterpret when, how and under what circumstances it is acceptable for the state to kill someone. Over time, those options are narrowing. Courts are applying stricter standards and continually raising the bar for prosecuting death penalty cases. Consider that it was only six years ago that the U.S. Supreme Court reversed itself and held that it is unconstitutional to impose capital punishment on those under the age of 18. For a state intent on maintaining a death penalty, the inevitable result will be bigger questions, fewer options and higher costs.
We recognize that imposition of new death sentences also has declined substantially over the past decade, from 224 in 2000 to 112 in 2010. Death Penalty Information Center, ‘‘Facts about the Death Penalty,’’ supra, p. 3. Various reasons have been posited for the decline, however, including: the high costs of the death penalty at a time when state budgets are strained from a weak economy; publicity about convictions overturned due to DNA evidence; a significant drop in rates of violent crime and murder; improved legal representation for capital defendants, including the greater use of mitigation specialists; and the increasingly available option for prosecutors to seek life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Although some of these explanations suggest declining public support for the death penalty because it offends contemporary standards of decency and morality, others decidedly do not. Because of the ambiguity underlying the decline in new death sentences, that circumstance does not provide compelling support for abandoning our decisions in Ross and Webb.
The courts and the legislature in Connecticut are engaged in a silly game of kickball and avoidance. We hide behind the cutesy nickname, “the land of steady habits”, when in reality, we are the only state in the entire Northeast to still sanction this punishment. Steady we are, I suppose. Steadily vengeful and regressive.
Fourteen years ago, I struggled with the decision to allow an execution to proceed. Over the years I have thought if faced with the same set of circumstances I would make a different decision. That time has come.
The time has come. Who will have the courage to utter these words and take a different approach?