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Friday, April 6, 2012

Death penalty repeal clears hurdle in Conn.

HARTFORD. Conn. – Connecticut is poised to become the 17th state to abolish the death penalty after the Senate passed a bill Thursday morning repealing capital punishment.

The 20-16 vote came at 2:05 a.m., after more than 10 hours of debate. The measure now moves to the House of Representatives, where it has broad support. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has pledged to sign the bill once it reaches his desk.

The fate of the repeal drive was sealed earlier this week, when several one-time supporters of capital punishment indicated they were switching their stance. Several of them spoke, often in bluntly personal terms, in the floor of the chamber.

“It’s no secret I have agonized over this issue,” said Sen. Edith Prague. A one-time supporter of the death penalty, the Democrat has changed her position twice since 2009.

But in the early hours of Thursday morning, Prague explained why she is now backing a bill that would abolish capital punishment in Connecticut and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of release.

“I cannot stand the thought of being responsible for someone being falsely accused and facing the death penalty,” Prague said, speaking slowly and deliberately as her colleagues listened. “For me this is a moral issue. ... I don’t want to be part of a system that sends innocent people ... to the death penalty.”

The bill would replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of release. It stipulates that the 11 men currently on Connecticut’s death row would still face execution; capital punishment would only be abolished for those convicted of capital offenses in the future.

The measure passed largely along party lines, with two Democrats joining the Republicans in rejecting the bill.

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, a Republican, said he understands the worries expressed by Prague and others that human error could condemn an innocent man or woman. “In theory would anybody want to vote for something that could possibly lead to the execution of an innocent person? Absolutely not,” he said.

“But we’re not dealing in theory. We’re dealing in the facts that we have, not in Illinois, not in Texas and not in Florida, but here in Connecticut,” McKinney said. “And here in Connecticut, it’s not in dispute. There is no evidence that anyone currently on death row is innocent.”

A smattering of supporters of the repeal bill watched the debate unfold from the Senate gallery. They brought chocolate-covered espresso beans to help them stay awake as the hours wore on.

Victoria Coward, whose only son, Tyler, was murdered in a New Haven park in 2007 at age 18, says she doesn’t understand how the state can justify taking a life.

“I didn’t like when they came and told me my son was killed,” she said, standing near the entrance of the Capitol. “Why would I want to put somebody else through that? Murder for murder, that’s not right.”