CONNECTICUT SUPREME COURT FINDS THE STATE’S DEATH PENALTY UNCONSTITUTIONAL: THE DECISION IMPACTS A BRUTAL RAPE AND MURDER HOME INVASION CASE

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The Connecticut Supreme Court, in a 4/3 decision, ruled that the state’s death penalty is unconstitutional. The sole question addressed by the court was whether a 2012 legislative revision to the death penalty statute that only banned “prospective” death penalty sentences was consistent “with the standards of decency in Connecticut and whether the law “served any valid penological objective.” The ruling directly impacts the lingering fate of 11 inmates who were under the imposition of death penalty sentences for actions committed before 2012, including the infamous Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, who were convicted of the brutal killing of a mother and her two daughters during a home invasion on July 23rd, 2007.

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Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, the two men, with criminal histories, had originally planned to rob the victims but then changed their plans when they figured the money they got from the family was inadequate; finding out that the father (William Petit) and mother (Jennifer Hawke-Petit) had money in their banking account, they bound the victims and sent Jennifer, along with Hayes, to the bank and forced her to obtain $15,000. Although Jennifer notified bank personnel of the robbery in process, police did not directly contact the defendants until they left the victim’s house some 30-plus minutes later. (The call to the police from the bank occurred at 9:21 a.m., the defendants left the house at 10: a.m.) Meanwhile, Komisarjevsky raped 11-year-old Michaela (and filmed the rape on his cell phone), and Hayes raped the mother. The father had previously been beaten and bound. The girls were bound to their bed, doused with gasoline, Jennifer was strangled to death by Hayes, a fire was lit, and the girls died from smoke inhalation. The two fled in the Petit’s station wagon and were captured within a block or so when they crashed into a police cruiser.

The two were tried separately; Hayes was convicted on November 8, 2010, and the jury returned special verdicts mandating a death sentence, and he was sentenced to death on December 2nd, 2010. After lengthy delays precipitated by defense motions (including an unsuccessful motion to change venue due to alleged pretrial publicity) and the sequence of the trials, Komisarjevsky was convicted of all 17 counts, including murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault on October 13, 2011, and sentenced to death by lethal injection on January 27th, 2012. The ruling today (oral arguments had been heard on April 23rd, 2013) removed the death penalty for both defendants; however, they will remain in prison until they die.

COMMENT: Although these facts, much like those in many death penalty cases, are brutal, we believe the Connecticut court made the right decision. Understandably, the case at the time probably served as a poster child for the proposition that the death penalty was necessary for the state- the defendants strongly appear to be psychopaths with no redeeming value.  According to some, redeeming values and “societal mores” is the legislative branch’s prerogative- not the courts. Of course, such contentions are elliptical and do not represent proper paradigms for judicial officers to follow. Bad facts make bad law. It is for the judiciary to determine whether certain laws are fundamentally flawed because they are vague or applied unevenly or have no decent effect. When such issues lay at the feet of our courts, judges cannot simply throw the issue back to the legislative body and say that body’s work is “the best indicator of contemporary societal mores”- if that were the case, what function would courts serve? To be sure, this is a tough and sad case. We also know that the death penalty does not deter crime, it is way too expensive, and it is often imposed in a discriminatory, cruel, and unusual way. In an unrelated matter, this case could also serve as a reason to strengthen citizen’s rights to bear arms. These men could legally have been shot in the house, thereby eliminating much grief and costs.

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