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October 3, 2011

Why death is really LWOP in Connecticut: the "glacial pace" of state capital appeals

In the wake of a horrific murder of a family in their home, the Connecticut capital justice system has received attention as prosecutors have sought death sentences for the murderers.  This legnthy new AP article highlights why, even with one death sentence imposed and another possible in the Cheshire mass murder case, condemned Connecticut murderers are much more likely to die in prison than to ever get executed by the state.  The piece is headlined "Conn. Death Row Appeals Not Going Anywhere Soon," and here are excerpts:

As Connecticut prosecutors work to put Cheshire murder suspect Joshua Komisarjevsky on death row, the appeals of those already awaiting execution are moving at what legal experts say is a glacial pace.  Of the 10 men sentenced to death in the state, three have been awaiting execution for more than two decades and two others have been on death row for at least 12 years....

Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane recently told state lawmakers that death sentences "will not be carried out in the near future, given the current state of the legal proceedings. These oldest cases are not cases where the inmate will be exonerated through DNA technology. Guilt is not at issue; it is delay and delay solely for the sake of delay."

Judges, lawyers and victims' families blame foot-dragging by the courts and lawyers, the complexity of the appeal system and a six-year-old, still-pending lawsuit alleging racial and geographic bias in state death penalty cases.  While death penalty opponents continue to call for a repeal of capital punishment, supporters are urging lawmakers to reform the appeal process.

None of Connecticut's death-row appeals have made it into the federal system, where they will go after the state appeals have been exhausted.

Superior Court Judge Carl Schuman issued rare criticism of the process from the bench in June, when he denied the latest appeal of convicted cop killer Richard Reynolds, who was convicted 16 years ago.  He blamed prosecutors, defense attorneys and the courts for not moving the case forward and wrote that the "lethargic movement of this case is contrary to society's need for finality of convictions," adding that it "conflicts with all notions of sound judicial policy."...

Four death-row appeals are on hold because of the lawsuit alleging racial and geographic disparities, which is set to go to trial next June.  The case, which will impact all death-row appeals, has been delayed for years by changes in judges, two different studies commissioned by the inmates' lawyers and a response from prosecutors that included several revisions.

Michael Courtney, head of the public defender office's Capital Defense Unit, said there could be more delays as his office moves have the date updated to include those sentenced to death after 2006.  He said subsequent federal appeals could also be lengthy, as defense lawyers get their first chance to argue that Connecticut's death penalty violates the U.S. Constitution by pre-screening what issues a jury can consider as mitigating factors in a capital case.

"Until the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately decides we're going to look at this or we're not going to look at it, or decides one way or another whether Connecticut is operating properly under the federal Constitution, there is not going to be another execution in Connecticut, barring another volunteer" Courtney said.  In 2005, serial killer Michael Ross was given a lethal injection after he pushed for his death sentence to be carried out, becoming the first person executed in New England since 1960.

The lack of executions can be attributed at least in part to a unique set of laws that allows for virtually unlimited numbers and types of appeals, prosecutors said.  The direct appeal of a death sentence takes at least four years to litigate, they said.  Defendants also can file what are known as habeas corpus appeals in state court alleging a variety of problems, such as the ineffective assistance of counsel, or improper testimony.  If they lose their first habeas corpus appeal, they can file another, claiming problems in their first habeas corpus case, and so on.

October 3, 2011 at 08:43 AM | Permalink

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