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Connecticut Supreme Court Abolishes Death Penalty as Cruel and Unusual Punishment

by Derek Gilna

In a decision rendered in August 2015, after the filing of numerous amicus briefs by the American Civil Liberties Union and other prisoner rights organizations, the Connecticut Supreme Court, in a 4-3 ruling, has effectively abolished the death penalty in that state. The matter had come before the Court in the matter of State of Connecticut v. Eduardo Santiago, where the Court stated that a "prospective" abolition of the death penalty by the Connecticut legislature in 2012 that kept intact the death penalty for defendants who had already been sentenced was unconstitutional.

"Upon careful consideration of the  defendant's claims in light of the governing constitutional principles and Connecticut's unique historical and legal landscape," the Court held, "we are persuaded that, following its prospective abolition, this state's death penalty no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose." The "execution of those offenders who committed capital felonies prior to April 25, would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment,"  the Court said.

In a 92-page opinion authored by Justice Palmer, the Court traced the evolution of punishment in Connecticut since it early days as an English colony, where punishment such as "flogging,"  often till the offender died, and "breaking on the wheel," gave way as standards of punishment moderated.  Although the death penalty existed for almost 400 years in the state, the Court said that "No female has been executed ...since 1786, and no male under the age of eighteen at the time of the offense. since 1904," The Court also noted the steep decline in execution of adult males in the past century, with only one occurring in the past 55 years in the state, as well as the abolition of the death penalty in 16 of the United States in recent decades.

Robert Durham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, stated after the decision, "When you think about national impact, it's certainly significant that a state court has said 'the death penalty offends evolving standards of decency...It's also significant that it reaches the conclusion that the death penalty no longer serves an penological purpose." See: State of Connecticut v. Santiago, SC 17413 (Supr. Ct. of Connecticut, 2015).


Related legal case

State of Connecticut v. Santiago