By Shannon Young
HARTFORD, Conn. — The state Senate voted Thursday voted to abolish the death penalty in Connecticut, a state that has executed only one prisoner in a half-century and is now on track to join a national trend away from capital punishment.
In an early morning vote that followed more than 10 hours of debate, the Senate approved legislation that would set life imprisonment as the maximum punishment for all future cases. The bill, which has the support of the state's Democratic governor, now goes to the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, where it's expected to win approval.
In the last five years, four other states have abolished the death penalty — New Mexico, Illinois, New Jersey and New York. Connecticut would become the 17th state without a death penalty.
Repeal proposals are also pending in several other states including Kansas and Kentucky, while advocates in California have gathered enough signatures for an initiative to throw out the death penalty that is expected to go before voters in November.
"I think with the revelations of so many mistakes, aided by DNA testing, it's been made clear that the death penalty risks (innocent) lives," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit capital punishment tracking organization in Washington, D.C.
Executions in the U.S. have declined from a high of 98 in 1999 to 43 last year, Dieter said. The number of people sentenced to death each year has also dropped sharply, from 300 a decade ago to 78 last year, he said.
Connecticut state Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, called the 20-16 vote "a pivotal step."
"It moves us towards a more enlightened posture on the issue and puts us more in line with other New England states," he said.
The legislation wouldn't affect sentences of the 11 inmates now on Connecticut's death row. Many officials insisted on that as a condition of their support for repeal in a state where two men were sentenced to death for a gruesome 2007 home invasion that killed a woman and her two daughters and evoked comparisons to Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood."
Similar legislation never made it to the Senate floor for a vote last year after some senators voiced concern about acting when the second of two suspects in that case was still facing trial. Two paroled burglars, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, were convicted of killing Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, 17-year-old Hayley and 11-year-old Michaela, in their suburban home in Cheshire. The girls' father, William Petit, was beaten but survived.
Now that both men have been sentenced to death, some lawmakers who previously opposed the penalty — including Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia — shifted their support.
"I cannot stand the thought of being responsible for somebody being falsely accused and facing the death penalty," she said. "For me, this is a moral issue and realizing that mistakes are obviously made."
A Democratic amendment to the bill, which also passed the Senate, would require that inmates convicted under the new law face harsh prison conditions replicating those on death row, including separate inmate housing, non-contact visitation and mandated cell movement every 90 days.
During the Senate debate on the repeal bill, opponents questioned its constitutionality. They predicted the repeal would be the basis for numerous legal appeals by lawyers for death row inmates.
"What I do know is that the appeals won't stop," said Senate Republican Leader John McKinney of Fairfield. "What I do know is that the legal process will continue and be lengthy even after the death penalty is repealed. It will just be different arguments made in the appeal."
Connecticut has carried out only one execution in 51 years, when serial killer Michael Ross was administered lethal injection in 2005 after giving up his appeal rights.
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Copyright 2012 Associated Press