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Connecticut Supreme Court: Death Penalty Abolition is Retroactive

by Matt Clarke

On August 12, 2015, the Supreme Court of Connecticut ruled that to execute a person following the state legislature's prospective abolition of the death penalty would violate the state constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Eduardo Santiago was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in Connecticut. He appealed. While his appeal was pending, the legislature abolished the death penalty, replacing it with life-without-parole, but made it only applicable to new crimes.

The Connecticut Supreme Court affirmed the conviction, but reversed the death sentence because the prosecutor had withheld potentially mitigating evidence. Santiago continued to be eligible for the death penalty in the retrial of his penalty phase. Santiago filed a motion for reconsideration, alleging that the abolition of the death penalty was a fundamental change in the state's evolving standards of decency so that the death penalty now violates the state constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The Supreme Court examined the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment found in Article I, Sections 8 and 9 of the Connecticut Constitution. It also examined the history of the prohibition all the way back to the colonial code of 1672. In doing so, it noted that "capital punishment falls disproportionately on people of color and other disadvantaged groups, ... the number of executions and the number of states that allow the death penalty continue to decline, and convicted capital felons in this state remain on death row for decades with every likelihood that they will not be executed for many year to come, if ever."

The court concluded that, "[u]pon careful consideration of the defendant's claims in light of the governing constitutional principles and Connecticut's unique historical and legal landscape, 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. For these reasons, execution of those offenders who committed felonies prior to Aril 25, 2012, would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment."

The lengthy and well-reasoned opinion reads like a playbook on how to challenge capital punishment in the 31 states that still allow it.

See: State v. Santiago, Conn., No. SC 17413.

Additional source: Huffington Post

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Related legal case

State of Connecticut v. Santiago