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Conn. death penalty repeal appears in doubt

New Jersey
May 11, 2011 7:11:40 PM PDT
Efforts to repeal Connecticut's death penalty this year appeared in doubt Wednesday after a key state senator informed her leadership that she has agreed not to support repeal at the request of Dr. William Petit, the lone survivor of a 2007 Cheshire home invasion in which his wife and daughters were killed.

Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia, said Petit and his sister recently met with her and asked the longtime legislator not to support the repeal legislation. Even though the legislation states that it only affects future capital felony crimes, she said Petit is concerned that the second suspect in his family's case, Joshua Komisarjevsky, could use the repeal as the basis for an appeal and possibly not face capital punishment.

"Whatever he would have asked me to do, I would have done, because that family doesn't deserve any more stress or aggravation," Prague said. "So, I'm going to honor their request. I want to do a little something for them."

Ben Jones, executive director of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, said his group is still waiting to see whether the repeal bill can pass this year. He said there are still "a handful" of uncommitted senators. The advocates were optimistic about the legislation's chances because Gov. Dannel P. Malloy supports repealing the death penalty for future crimes.

"We want to see if they're going to take it up this year or wait. There's a lot of stuff going on obviously, with the layoffs and everything," Jones said, referring to state budget issues. "If they wait, it won't be a surprise. Right now a lot of things are up in the air."

Jones said there is enough support for the bill in the House of Representatives.

Prague has voted for the death penalty in the past. A granddaughter of one of her neighbors was a victim of serial killer Michael Ross, the last person to be executed in Connecticut. He was put to death in 2005.

Since that time, Prague said she has become concerned about the possibility of the state executing an innocent man, especially after learning about James Tillman, the Connecticut man who was imprisoned from 1988 to 2006 for a rape and kidnapping he said he did not commit. DNA evidence later cleared him of the crimes.

Prague said Petit fears repealing the law could hinder efforts to convict the last suspect in the case and impose a death sentence. The other man charged was convicted and sentenced to death last year.

Jeffrey Meyer, counsel to Petit, said the doctor and his sister have met with certain lawmakers about their concern.

"They deeply admire Senator Prague and her courage to oppose a measure that would confuse and disrupt the ongoing trial against Joshua Komisarjevsky," he said. "The Petit family is hopeful that legislators will postpone any consideration of the repeal law until after the current trial concludes later this year."

Sen. Andrew Roraback, R-Goshen, said he met recently with Petit.

He said Petit did not convince him to change long-held stance as a death penalty opponent. However, Roraback said he agrees with the doctor that repealing the death penalty could affect Komisarjevsky's sentencing and understands his effort to reach out to senators.

"There's never been a case where it's more appropriate for someone to get involved," Roraback said. "If the outcome of his lobbying is to cause this body to take a deep breath and put off debate for a year on this measure, I wouldn't take issue with that."

Jones maintains that the bill only affects future crimes.

"It has nothing to do with when the trial is, when the conviction is," he said. "If this passed in 2009, (the Cheshire case) would have been covered."

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Associated Press Writer John Christoffersen in New Haven contributed to this report.

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