Law
3:45 am
Sat June 14, 2014

Despite Death Penalty Repeal, Conn. Hands Down A Death Sentence

Originally published on Sat June 14, 2014 10:12 am

On Sept. 7, 2006, Richard Roszkowski chased after a 9-year-old girl named Kylie Flannery. He shot her three times, ultimately killing her, as well as two adults.

Last month, a Connecticut judge sentenced Roszkowski to death for the crimes — despite the fact that the state eliminated the death penalty in 2012.

"This is a terrible sentence," Judge John Blawie said at the sentencing hearing. "But it is in truth, sir, a sentence you wrote for yourself on Sept. 7, 2006."

The penalty left Connecticut in an interesting situation. Three states — Connecticut, New Mexico and Maryland — have abolished the death penalty, but only for those crimes committed after the repeal was passed.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Connecticut is the only state to have sentenced someone to death after repealing the death penalty. The state supreme court is considering whether that is unconstitutional.

"To even proceed along these lines now just seems to me ridiculous," says Thomas Ullmann, a public defender. He represented one of two men convicted of killing a mother and her two daughters in an infamous 2007 home invasion case in Cheshire, Conn. Both men are now on death row.

"So we've made a decision to not proceed with the death penalty, and we still are. I don't get the distinction," Ullmann says. "I think it's unconstitutional — the supreme court is obviously going to deal with that. I think it's going to be an issue in both this state and federally for a long time."

Ullmann contrasts Roszkowski — who killed three people — with Adam Lanza, the gunman at the 2012 massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, who killed 26.

"Take, for example, the Newtown case," Ullmann says. "Had that young man who killed himself survived, he could not have faced the death penalty."

But Kevin Kane, the state's top prosecutor, says "it's not really complicated." He thinks lawmakers didn't leave any room for interpretation.

"They very clearly and very recently voted that the death penalty should apply, or does apply, to any case committed before April of 2012. We can't say, 'Well, gee, they repealed it, so it must mean that it can't be sought anymore.' "

This means the death penalty could still be used for the 11 people on Connecticut's death row, as well as for anyone who may have committed a crime before the repeal in 2012.

While he says there is no ambiguity in the law, Kane originally counseled the state legislature against such a prospective repeal. He told lawmakers that he wouldn't seek the death penalty for a hypothetical crime that occurred the day before the repeal became effective. Doing so would seem arbitrary, he said, and he wouldn't feel right doing it.

But now, the law is the law. "We've taken an oath to uphold the law as the legislature passes it, and that's our obligation," Kane says.

Kane says the legislature is a direct expression of the voice of the people. Yet Connecticut's record is another expression of the state's attitude toward capital punishment. Even when it had the death penalty, Connecticut rarely executed people – putting only one person to death in more than 50 years.

Copyright 2014 Connecticut Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wnpr.org.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Connecticut's lawmakers repealed capital punishment two years ago. But just last month, a judge there sentenced a man to death. How could that be? Well, three states - Connecticut, New Mexico and Maryland have abolished the death penalty, but only for those crimes committed after the law was changed.

As Jeff Cohen, from member station WNPR reports, if the crime was committed before that date, someone can still be executed.

JEFF COHEN, BYLINE: Richard Roszkowski was convicted for killing three people in 2006. One of them was Kylie Flannery, a 9-year-old girl. Here's how Judge John Blawie described her death.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUDGE JOHN BLAWIE: The child was utterly blameless. But she was shown no mercy and the defendant showed himself to be a true predator. In fact, he chased this little girl down and shot her three times with a 40 caliber weapon, once in the back and twice more at very close range.

COHEN: Then came the sentencing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLAWIE: For capital felony, arising from the murder of Kylie Flannery, a person under 16 years of age, you shall suffer death in the manner authorized by law. This is a terrible sentence. But it is in truth, sir, a sentence you wrote for yourself on September 7th, 2006.

COHEN: This was actually Roszkowski's second sentencing. He need to be resentenced because of an early trial court error. But that left Connecticut in an interesting situation. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, it's the only state to have sentenced someone to death after repealing the death penalty. The state Supreme Court is considering whether that aspect of the law makes it unconstitutional.

THOMAS ULLMAN: To even proceed along these lines now just seems, to me, ridiculous.

COHEN: That's Thomas Ullman, a public defender. He represented one of the two men convicted of killing a mother and her two daughters in the infamous Cheshire home invasion of 2007. Both men are now on death row.

ULLMAN: So we've made a decision to not proceed with the death penalty. And we still are. I don't get the distinction. I think it's unconstitutional. Supreme Court's obviously going to deal with that. I think it's going to be an issue in both this state and federally for a long time.

COHEN: But what confounds Ullman makes perfect sense to Kevin Kane.

KEVIN KANE: It's not really complicated.

COHEN: Kane is the state's top prosecutor, and he says lawmakers didn't leave any room for interpretation.

KANE: Well, they very clearly and very recently voted that the death penalty should apply, or does apply, to any case committed before April of 2012. You can't say, well, gee, they repealed it. So they must mean that it shouldn't be sought anymore.

COHEN: And that means the death penalty could still be used for the 11 people on Connecticut's death row, as well as for anyone who may have committed a crime before the repeal. That said, Kane originally counseled the legislature against such a perspective repeal. He even told lawmakers that he wouldn't seek the death penalty for a hypothetical crime that occurred the day before the repeal became effective. He said that would seem arbitrary and he wouldn't feel right doing it. But now the law is the law.

KANE: We've taken an oath to uphold the law as legislature passes it. And that's our obligation.

COHEN: Kane says the legislature is a direct expression of the voice of the people. But others say behavior is a good indicator, too. And Connecticut's behavior when it comes to enforcing the death penalty is telling. The state has only executed one person in more than 50 years. And that person volunteered to die. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Cohen in Hartford. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.