A sweeping decision this week by the Connecticut Supreme Court that found the death penalty no longer meets society’s evolving standards of decency could be influential across a nation that is increasingly questioning the practice, legal experts said.
Thursday’s ruling found capital punishment violates the Connecticut constitution, but the justices backed their decision by citing what abolitionists say are universal problems with the death penalty, including economic disparities in its use, the costs involved with appeals, the inherent cruelty involved in lengthy waits for execution, and the risk of executing innocent people.
”It reads as a missive to the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Kevin Barry, a Quinnipiac University law professor and expert on death penalty law. ”It is a blueprint for our nation’s high court to strike down the death penalty nationally.”
Thirty-one states still have capital punishment, but seven states have eliminated it in the past decade, including Nebraska in May and Maryland in 2013, which both passed legislation outlawing the death penalty.
Connecticut’s abolishment is different because it comes in the form of a court ruling, one that found the 2012 state law that banned executions for future crimes did not go far enough, experts said.
The ruling could also influence courts in states such as Maryland and New Mexico, which, like Connecticut, eliminated the death penalty only for future crimes, said Robert Blecker, a professor at New York Law School and a proponent of the limited use of capital punishment. States including Delaware, Colorado, Kansas, New Hampshire and Washington are also considering repealing the death penalty only for future crimes, he said.
The death penalty was widely used in the United States for decades until the 1960s, when questions about its fairness reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which eventually ruled capital punishment unconstitutional in 1972. After states reworked their laws, the Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty in 1976.
In recent years, the number of death sentences and executions in the U.S. has plummeted as juries take advantage of new laws offering life with no chance of parole and as prosecutors hesitate to bring capital charges because of the cost, especially at the appeals stage. In the past five years, executions have slowed again while the supply of lethal drugs has dried up as manufacturers, responding to activist pressure, have put them off limits for capital punishment.
The number of death sentences imposed last year marked a 40-year low in the country, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks information about the use of capital punishment in the United States.
There have been recent indications that the U.S. Supreme Court may be preparing to take its first broad look at the constitutionality of the death penalty since 1976, perhaps as early as this fall.
But death penalty supporters may also look to Connecticut to back their position that executions should remain legal in states where it has public and legislative support.