Top Connecticut court hears death penalty appeal

HARTFORD Conn. Thu Jul 10, 2014 5:15pm EDT

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HARTFORD Conn. (Reuters) - Attorneys for a Connecticut drug lord sentenced to die for ordering the 1999 murders of a mother and her 8-year-old appealed to the state Supreme Court on Thursday to sentence him instead to life in prison in light of the state's death penalty repeal. The outcome of the case could influence the future of 10 other men sentenced to die in Connecticut before the repeal became law in 2012.

The court may consider whether the constitutional rights of people previously sentenced to death are being violated now that the state has stopped imposing capital punishment.

The man who was the subject of Thursday's arguments, Russell Peeler Jr., was sentenced to death in 2007 for ordering his brother Adrian to kill Karen Clarke and her 8-year-old son, Leroy "B.J." Brown.

Before the killings, prosecutors were planning to have the boy testify against Russell Peeler for the 1998 murder of Clarke’s boyfriend, whom they alleged was also Peeler’s drug rival for the prosperous Bridgeport drug trade.

Russell Peeler was sentenced earlier this year to 105 years in prison for the boyfriend's murder.

Arguments presented by Peeler’s attorney, Mark Rademacher, both in court on Thursday and in legal briefs, were based on the death penalty repeal and claims of misconduct during closing arguments by now-retired prosecutor Jonathan Benedict.

According to Rademacher, Benedict argued it would be an insult to the victims to give Peeler a life sentence, rather than the death penalty.

"I can't imagine anything worse he could say ... that the death is the only meaningful sentence," Rademacher said.

He also argued jurors had received "improper and vague" instructions when deciding Peeler's sentence.

"Russell Peeler is a good father and his children need him, even if he is spending the rest of his life in prison," Rademacher said.

    Prosecutor Marjorie Dauster denied that any of the defense arguments were valid, and took issue with Rademacher's assertion that both of Peeler’s victims had to be killed with cruel intent to warrant a death sentence.

“There has to be cruelty in one of the murders, not all of the murders in a multiple homicide,” Dauster told the justices. "The idea that all murders in a multiple homicide must be proven cruel to impose the death sentence would be bizarre and absurd."

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