Sunday, December 28, 2008

Attorney speaks up: Why the Death Penalty is Irrevocably Wrong



December 28, 2008

Mistakes are made. Horrible mistakes are made. It is time for Connecticut's legislature to abolish the death penalty — now, in the 2009 legislative session — to limit future mistakes.

On Dec. 19, Miguel Roman was released from prison after 20 years, based on newly reviewed evidence. Another man has been arrested for the murder that kept Miguel's family fatherless for two decades. Neither case is resolved yet. Can anyone doubt Miguel would not have been released from his 60-year sentence unless prosecutors believed he had been dreadfully wronged? Other mistakes will surely occur. Some may kill innocent persons.

We should abolish the death penalty because it is simply wrong for us, as individuals and as a community, to kill people. It is wrong to kill with premeditation and legal process aforethought. It is wrong to take 20 years to litigate, appeal, remand and re-litigate a case in order to kill a human being. It diminishes our humanity and our respect for life.

It is true that Connecticut has executed only one person in the past 40 years. The infrequency with which the ultimate punishment is used does not make it right. And there is collateral damage from our system of capital punishment. The existence of the death penalty distorts the operation of our criminal justice system. Defendants accept sentences of "life without release" to avoid facing trials and a potential death sentence. The state avoids the burden of proving its most serious cases beyond a reasonable doubt.

The U.S. Supreme Court is moving in the direction of abolishing the death penalty. Fifty years ago in Trop v. Dulles, it declared, "Evolving standards of decency must embrace and express respect for the dignity of the person." The punishment of criminals must conform to that rule. Within the past six years, the Bush court has declared use of the death penalty unconstitutional for the mentally retarded, juveniles and child rapists in cases where the child has not died.

As of April 2007, the Innocence Project reported that 200 persons in the United States had been exonerated through DNA evidence. More have been freed since then, including Roman, who has been granted a new trial after the Innocence Project asked that DNA evidence from his case be retested with modern technology. Most have suffered years of incarceration. Their families were deprived of companionship and support.

Yet most criminal cases do not involve DNA. Many wrongful convictions result from of mistaken eyewitness identifications. Honest but terrified crime victims or witnesses may glimpse attackers for only a few seconds, often in poor light. Victims are often traumatized. They are under pressure from police to identify the attackers. Victims and their families want to help capture criminals, to make the streets safe and spare others from similar experiences. Scared survivors look at mug shot books with pictures of "similar-looking" suspects. Many become genuinely convinced they can identify their attackers. Mistakes in these kinds of cases are even harder to reverse than mistakes resolvable by DNA.

Knowing that mistakes are made, and that exonerations continue, we should not wait any longer to abolish the death penalty in Connecticut. Yes, I know about the tragic murders in Cheshire. Sadly, nothing we can ever do will bring the Pettit women back to life.

Realistically, the most gruesome killers will not be deterred by the existence of a death penalty. We have a death penalty. It didn't prevent Cheshire.

Even State's Attorney John Connelly of the judicial district of Waterbury, which has sent more men to death row than any other in Connecticut, candidly told an informational forum of the legislature in January 2005 that the purpose of the death penalty "is not deterrence. It's retribution. ... The question becomes we as a community, we as a society, who do we feel is appropriate for these types of cases?"

To me the question is, "Is it appropriate for us to kill anyone?" And the answer is, "No."

The Cheshire murder cases are keeping this state, its General Assembly and its criminal justice community from serious consideration of abolishing the death penalty. We should not put our progress toward justice on hold. We should demand that our legislators abolish Connecticut's death penalty. And the governor should sign the abolition bill into law.

• Margaret P. Levy of West Hartford was the attorney for Miguel Roman in 1993 during his unsuccessful appeal of his murder conviction to the Connecticut Supreme Court and his petition to the U.S. Supreme Court for it to hear his case. She has not represented him since.

Copyright © 2008, The Hartford Courant

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