- Associated Press - Thursday, August 13, 2015

HARTFORD, Conn. — Three years after Connecticut abolished the death penalty for any future crimes, the state’s highest court on Thursday spared the lives of all 11 men who were already on death row when the law took effect, saying it would be unconstitutional to execute them.

Within minutes, a lawyer with the Chief Public Defender’s office said he was getting on the phone with his office’s clients to share the news.

“There will be no more death row,” said Michael Courtney, the leader of the office’s capital defense unit.

The ruling comes in an appeal from a 12th inmate, Eduardo Santiago, whose attorneys had argued that any execution carried out after the 2012 repeal would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Santiago, whose first sentence was overturned, faced a second penalty hearing and the possibility of lethal injection for a 2000 murder-for-hire killing in West Hartford.

The Connecticut Supreme Court, in a 4-3 ruling, agreed with his position, ruling that the death penalty “no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose.”

“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,” Justice Richard Palmer wrote for the majority.

Those inmates include Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, who were sentenced to die for killing a mother and her two daughters in a highly publicized 2007 home invasion in Cheshire.

The 2012 repeal, which set life in prison without the possibility of release as the punishment for crimes formerly considered capital offenses, was passed prospectively by lawmakers amid public outrage over the prospect that Komisarjevsky and Hayes might be spared execution.

In his ruling, Palmer wrote that it would not be permissible to execute other convicts “merely to achieve the politically popular end of killing two especially notorious inmates.”

Santiago was sentenced to lethal injection in 2005 for the murder-for-hire killing of 45-year-old Joseph Niwinski. But the state Supreme Court overturned the death sentence and ordered a new penalty phase in 2012, saying the trial judge wrongly withheld key evidence from the jury regarding the severe abuse Santiago suffered while growing up.

Santiago’s mother expressed joy Thursday that her son no longer had to fear execution.

“It’s a big weight lifted off everyone,” Christina Hagarty said. “Good things come to those who wait.”

The chief state’s attorney’s office declined to comment on the ruling Thursday morning, saying it was still reviewing the decision.

Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Harry Weller had argued that there were no constitutional problems with the new law and that death row inmates simply faced a penalty under the statute that was in effect when they were convicted.

Connecticut has had just one execution since 1960. Serial killer Michael Ross was put to death in 2005 after winning a legal fight to end his appeals.

Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy issued a statement Thursday noting the cost of death penalty appeals and the notoriety they give those sentenced to die.

“Today is a somber day where our focus should not be on the 11 men sitting on death row, but with their victims and those surviving families members,” he said. “My thoughts and prayers are with them during what must be a difficult day.”

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