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Sep 9, 2015 | Insights

Perseverance Pays Off, Connecticut Supreme Court Rules Death Penalty Unconstitutional

“Never quit. And never give up hope,” advises Sheila Denion, Project Director for the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty (CNADP), in the wake of another landmark ruling to repeal capital punishment, both prospectively in 2012, and now retrospectively in 2015—sparing the lives of the state’s 11 remaining death-row inmates.

Founded in 1986, the CNADP is a diverse collection of organizations and individuals – including faith leaders, murder victims’ families, civil rights leaders, law enforcement experts, and legal scholars, united by the shared belief that capital punishment is poor public policy.

Connecticut has had over 4,800 murders, 16 death sentences, and one execution since 1973. It was that one execution, of serial killer Michael Ross, in 2004, that got Denion involved in the movement. “It brought immediacy to the problem, and it galvanized a lot of people,” she recalls. “I just couldn’t believe that Connecticut could actually kill someone.”

But it wasn’t until 2008 that things started really happening for the network. Denion remembers receiving some major grant funding, having paid staff for the first time in history, and getting involved with the national criminal justice reform organization Equal Justice USA—who specialize in helping groups like CNADP achieve strategic focus.

“What’s it going to take to pass this law, in this state,” the CNADP asked themselves. Without the support of the then-Governor, the group went to work educating swing vote Senators in preparation for the next Governor to take office. They found lobbyists, politicians and state lawmakers surprisingly responsive and accessible to their constituents. “They were open with their opinions and why they held them,” Denion says.  “While recruiting members and holding events in the Senators’ districts, we identified law enforcement, religious leaders, exonerees and murder victims’ families who were against the death penalty, to speak with Senators from their own perspective.”

It turned out that murder victims’ families were the most influential in Connecticut. “I am deeply thankful for the court’s ruling,” said Sister Mary Healy of West Hartford in a press release. “As a clinical therapist and family of a murder victim, I’ve seen up close the devastating effects that the death penalty and its prolonged legal process can have on families already struggling with tragedy of losing a loved one. Throughout its history, the death penalty in Connecticut has failed murder victims’ families.”

Connecticut’s repeal of the death penalty was part of a larger national trend. Growing awareness of the death penalty’s flaws has led more individuals across the nation to reject capital punishment. Connecticut experienced firsthand this momentum for repeal. “The national movement needs to continue chipping away at the death penalty state-by-state, pressing on toward national repeal,” Denion says. “New Hampshire, Delaware and Colorado have come very close to repeal and have very active campaigns going strong. I would hope that any of them could do it in 2016. And hopefully we’re only 10 to 15 years away from national repeal, if not from Congress, then from the Supreme Court.” Toward this goal, the CNADP will continue to provide assistance and expertise whenever possible to other state organizations working to repeal the death penalty.

Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty is a fiscally-sponsored project of TSNE. TSNE’s Fiscal Sponsorship Program has served as a supportive, capacity-building partner to hundreds of projects, grassroots groups, coalitions, and networks over the past 50 years. We have been privileged to be a part of helping these groups grow, change and thrive so they can have a greater impact in the world.