January 28, 2005
CONNECTICUT DEATH PENALTY LAWS
By: Christopher Reinhart, Senior Attorney
You asked for a summary of Connecticut's death penalty laws and the appeals process.
A person convicted of a capital felony must be sentenced to either the death penalty or life imprisonment without the possibility of release. The law requires a separate sentencing hearing before a judge or jury to weigh mitigating and aggravating factors to decide whether to impose the death penalty. The judge or jury cannot impose the death penalty and must sentence the person to life imprisonment without the possibility of release if the judge or jury determines that mitigating factors outweigh, or are of equal weight to, the aggravating factors or if any of five automatic bars to the death penalty exist. Otherwise, the person must be sentenced to death.
Once a person is convicted and sentenced to the death penalty, he can appeal in state and federal courts. The Connecticut appeals process involves an automatic sentence review by the Connecticut Supreme Court, a direct appeal of errors at trial and sentencing, and then a state habeas corpus phase. It is possible to appeal these rulings to the U.S. Supreme Court. At the conclusion of state proceedings, a person can file a federal habeas corpus petition and appeal any ruling through the federal courts up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In Connecticut, the method of imposing the death penalty changed from electrocution to lethal injection in 1995 (CGS § 54-100). If a person becomes insane after being sentenced to death, the execution is stayed but can be reinstated if the person becomes sane (CGS § 54-101). The Board of Pardons and Paroles can commute a death sentence or grant a pardon to a person on death row (CGS § 54-130a).
A person convicted of a capital felony can be sentenced to either the death penalty or life imprisonment without the possibility of release. A person commits a capital felony if he:
1. murders, while the victim was acting within the scope of his duties, a police officer, Division of Criminal Justice inspector, state marshal exercising his statutory authority, judicial marshal performing his duties, constable performing law enforcement duties, special policeman, conservation or special conservation officer appointed by the environmental protection commissioner, Department of Correction (DOC) employee or service provider acting within the scope of his employment in a correctional facility and the perpetrator is an inmate, or firefighter;
2. murders for pay or hires someone to murder;
3. murders and was previously convicted of intentional murder or murder while a felony was committed;
4. murders while sentenced to life imprisonment;
5. murders a kidnapped person and is the kidnapper;
6. murders while committing first-degree sexual assault;
7. murders two or more people at the same time or in the course of a single transaction; or
8. murders a person under age 16 (CGS § 53a-54b).
Judge or Jury
In capital felony cases, the defendant is tried by a jury unless he chooses to be tried by a three judge panel. If the defendant chooses a judges panel, the chief court administrator, or his designee, designates the judges and chooses one to preside at trial. A majority of the judges decides all questions of law and fact at trial and renders judgment. If the defendant is tried by a jury, the jury consists of 12 jurors unless the defendant consents to a lesser number (CGS § 54-82).
After a person is convicted of a capital felony, the judge or jury considering whether the court should impose the death penalty must determine, and state in a special verdict, whether one or more aggravating factors outweigh one or more mitigating factors. If the court or jury determines the mitigating factors outweigh the aggravating factors or are of equal weight, the court must sentence the defendant to life imprisonment without the possibility of release. If the aggravating factors outweigh mitigating factors, the sentence is death (CGS § 53a-46a).
A "special verdict" declares findings on specific factual issues or questions. By contrast, a general verdict declares whether or not the judge or jury finds in favor of the defendant. The court or jury also must state in the special verdict its findings on the existence of any (1) automatic bars to the death penalty and (2) aggravating factors.
The jury or court must determine if a particular factor concerning the defendant's character, background, or history or the nature and circumstances of the crime is established by the evidence and whether that factor is mitigating, considering all the facts and circumstances of the case. Mitigating factors are not defenses or excuses for the capital felony of which the defendant was convicted, but are factors which, in fairness and mercy, tend either to extenuate or reduce the defendant's blame for the offense or otherwise provide a reason for a sentence less than death (CGS § 53a-46a).
The only aggravating factors that the judge or jury can consider are that the defendant:
1. committed the offense while committing or attempting to commit a felony, or while fleeing from the commission of or attempt to commit a felony, and had previously been convicted of the same felony;
2. had been convicted of at least two state or federal offenses prior to the offense, each of which was committed on different occasions, involved serious bodily injury, and had a maximum penalty of at least one year imprisonment;
3. committed the offense knowingly creating a risk of death to another person in addition to the victim of the offense;
4. committed the offense in an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner;
5. procured someone else to commit the offense by paying or promising to pay anything of pecuniary value;
6. committed the offense in return for payment or the expectation of payment;
7. committed the offense with an assault weapon; or
8. murdered one of the following people while they were acting within the scope of their duties in order to (a) avoid arrest for or prevent detection of a criminal act, (b) hamper or prevent the victim from carrying out an act within the scope of his official duties, or (c) retaliate against the victim for performing his official duties: a police officer, Division of Criminal Justice inspector, state marshal exercising his statutory authority, judicial marshal performing his duties, constable performing law enforcement duties, special policeman, conservation or special conservation officer appointed by the environmental protection commissioner, DOC employee or service provider acting within the scope of employment in a correctional facility and the perpetrator is an inmate, a firefighters (CGS § 53a-46a(i)).
Automatic Bars to Death Penalty
Five factors automatically bar the death penalty. A defendant cannot receive the death penalty if the court or jury determines that:
1. he was under age 18 at the time of the crime;
2. he was mentally retarded at the time of the crime;
3. his mental capacity or ability to conform his conduct to the requirements of law was significantly impaired at the time of the crime (but not so impaired as to constitute a defense);
4. he was guilty of a capital felony only as an accessory and had relatively minor participation; and
5. he could not reasonably have foreseen that his conduct, in the course of committing the crime he was convicted of, would cause someone's death (CGS § 53a-46a(h)).
In Connecticut, the state Supreme Court automatically reviews a death sentence. The court must affirm the sentence unless (1) it was the product of passion, prejudice, or any other arbitrary factor or (2) the evidence fails to support the finding of an aggravating factor needed to impose the death penalty. Additionally, the defendant may seek a direct appeal of his conviction to address any errors at trial. The court must consolidate the review and appeal for consideration (CGS § 53a-46b).
If the direct appeal fails, the defendant can petition the U.S. Supreme Court for review of the conviction. If this fails, he can file a state habeas corpus petition. Habeas petitions generally cannot raise issues that have already been raised and decided on appeal. The petitions usually involve a claim (1) of ineffective assistance of counsel or (2) for a new trial based on actual innocence (usually due to the discovery of new evidence). A defendant can then appeal these claims through the Connecticut Supreme Court and a denial can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. If the defendant is unsuccessful at this point, he can file a federal habeas corpus petition on federal issues in the federal district court. This claim can be appealed through the federal court of appeals and to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The defendant's case can be returned to the trial court if the state Supreme Court vacates the conviction or the death sentence, the defendant's habeas petition (federal or state) is granted, or the U.S. Supreme Court finds error. If the trial court imposes a new death sentence, the appeals process begins again.