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Smerconish: Death penalty repeals are 'the greatest injustice of all'

By Michael SmerconishLet me finish tonight with this. Early this morning, Connecticut took a big step toward becoming the 17th state to abolish the death

By Michael Smerconish

Let me finish tonight with this. 

Early this morning, Connecticut took a big step toward becoming the 17th state to abolish the death penalty. At 2 a.m., the state Senate passed a measure--largely along partisan lines--that would replace capital punishment with life in prison and no chance of release. Now it goes to the state House, where it has support, and Governor Dannel P. Malloy has pledged to sign it.

Anytime a state makes a change in course on the death penalty, it's significant, but even more so in Connecticut because of what happened in Cheshire on July 23, 2007

That day, two criminal recidivists broke into Dr. William Petit's home, bludgeoned him with a baseball bat, and tied him up in the basement. Over several hours, Petit's wife Jennifer was taken to the bank to withdraw money, raped, and ultimately strangled to death. Daughter Michaela, age 11, was sexually assaulted and tied to her bed. Daughter Hayley, age 17, was also tied to her bed. The girls died of smoke inhalation when the two attackers poured gasoline throughout the house and set it on fire. 

Both assailants were captured, convicted, and sentenced to death.

Yesterday, Dr. Petit was among those who opposed the death penalty repeal, despite the measure's prospective nature. Meaning, the bill stipulates that the 11 men currently on Connecticut's death row--Dr. Petit's torturers among them--would still face execution. Capital punishment would only be abolished for those convicted of capital offenses in the future.

I happen to think the men who killed Dr. Petit's family should pay with their lives. When a jury imposes such a sentence, it is important that it be carried out. I doubt, however, that caveat is comforting to Dr. Petit, especially where Connecticut has executed one man since 1960 and, by waiving his appeals, that inmate essentially asked for it.

That's similar to my home state of Pennsylvania, where we too have the death penalty in name only. Since capital punishment was reinstated in the commonwealth in 1978, only three people have been put to death, and again, they each gave up their appeals. The state's last contested execution was carried out way back in 1962. 

In the intervening five decades, the justice system has been gradually manipulated into a process that coddles its worst offenders at the expense of the real victims. Men like Dr. Petit are victimized twice when they lose loved ones, and then watch helplessly as their legal proceedings devolve into a never-ending cycle of appeals because the court system will not act upon an outcome that a legislature permitted and a jury selected. 

That is the greatest injustice of all.