August 13, 2015 / 4:10 PM / 5 years ago

Connecticut's top court bans death penalty in state

(Reuters) - Connecticut’s top court on Thursday ruled that the state could no longer impose the death penalty, calling it unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

The execution chamber at the Arizona State Prison Complex- Florence - HU9 is shown in the screen grab from a video provided by the Arizona Department of Corrections March 4, 2015. REUTERS/Arizona Department of Corrections/Handout

The New England state is the latest to back away from the death penalty, following Nebraska earlier this year and Maryland in 2013. Thirty-one U.S. states still allow for executions.

The decision followed a 2012 state law that abolished capital punishment for crimes committed after that date but allowed it to be imposed for crimes previously committed.

“We are persuaded that, following its prospective abolition, this state’s death penalty no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose,” Connecticut Supreme Court justices wrote in Thursday’s ruling.

“For these reasons, execution of those offenders who committed capital felonies prior to April 25, 2012, would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”

The court noted that the punishment is imposed only rarely, saying there was a “freakishness” in its use and that there were wide disparities in its application depending on a defendant’s race or economic class.

Connecticut last executed an inmate, serial killer Michael Ross, in 2005. Eleven men remained on death row as of Thursday for crimes committed prior to the 2012 abolition of the punishment, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

“It’s clear that those currently serving on death row will serve the rest of their lives in a Department of Corrections facility with no possibility of ever obtaining freedom,” said Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy.

The decision comes weeks after liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that they believe capital punishment as currently practiced in the United States may be unconstitutional.

Their statement came in a dissenting opinion after the court found in a 5-4 vote that a lethal injection drug used in Oklahoma was not a violation of the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“The Connecticut court followed suit in not finding just one problem with the death penalty but many,” said Boston College law professor Kari Hong. “I suspect this will be the first of many state courts reconsidering whether the death penalty is cruel.”

Thursday’s decision was related to the case of Eduardo Santiago, who was convicted of murdering the romantic rival of an associate in exchange for a snowmobile in 2000 and was sentenced to death. The court overturned his sentence in 2012, saying a judge had erred in preventing a jury from hearing some background on the man’s troubled past, which included childhood neglect and sexual abuse.

Santiago asked the court to take up the issue of whether the death penalty remained a constitutional option for crimes committed prior to 2012.

One northeastern state, New Hampshire, still has the death penalty law on the books. Its last execution occurred in 1939.

Reporting by Scott Malone in Boston; Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Will Dunham and Bill Rigby

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