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Second Circuit Holds Control Unit Placement for Former Death Row Prisoners Unconstitutional Bill of Attainder

The court’s March 11, 2021, opinion was issued in an appeal brought by Connecticut Department of Corrections (CDOC) officials. They appealed the district court’s August 27, 2019, judgment and permanent injunction entered in favor of prisoner Richard Reynolds. The Connecticut Legislature prospectively abolished the death penalty in 2012 with the passage of Conn. Gen. Stat. § 18-10b. In 2015, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled the death penalty was unconstitutional. [See PLN, Dec. 2019 p.54]. Williams was resentenced to life without parole under § 18-10b in 2016 as a result of that ruling.

In reviewing the district court’s order, the Second Circuit agreed with CDOC officials that the lower court “impermissibly decided disputed issues of material facts. Specifically, the parties vigorously disagree as to the precise conditions imposed in the Special Circumstances Unit in which Reynolds is housed, which in turn has bearing on whether the conditions may be properly characterized as ‘solitary confinement.’” Thus, it was error to grant judgment on Reynolds’ Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment claims.

The Second Circuit then turned to determine if § 18-10b constituted a bill of attainder, which is “a law that legislatively determines guilt and inflicts punishment upon an identifiable individual without provision of the protections of a judicial trial.”

The elements to identify a bill of attainder are: (1) specification of the affected persons, (2) punishment, and (3) lack of judicial trial. CDOC interpreted § 18-10b to require Reynolds be permanently placed on placement in SCU without possibility of release to general population.

The Second Circuit found the evidence demonstrates § 18-10b specifically applied to the eleven prisoners who sitting on death row as of April 25, 2012. The law was clearly intended to punish those prisoners if their sentence was reduced or commuted in the future. Finally, the punishment in § 18-10b did not exist when Reynolds went to trial, so it was concluded he was not afforded a trial in connection with his punishment. The court concluded Reynolds met the requisite criteria for § 18-10b to be found a bill of attainder.

It also found the district court was correct in finding Reynolds was denied equal protection. The evidence showed he was treated differently than two other prisoners who were convicted of murder and whose death sentences were reversed and they were resentenced to life without parole.

The district court’s order was affirmed in part and reversed in part. The permanent injunction that enjoined CDOC from enforcing § 18-10b against Reynolds, directing him to be housed similarly as the other to similarly situated prisoners, and ordering CDOC to provide Retail with a meaningful individualized classification determination, was affirmed. See: Reynolds v. Quiros, 990 F.3d 286 (2d Cir. 2021).

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Related legal case

Reynolds v. Quiros