In a move that could have a ripple effect across the nation, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional on August 13. Connecticut actually abolished capital punishment within its borders three years ago, but there are still 11 people awaiting execution in the state, all of whom have now effectively been granted a stay of execution. The ruling cites racial biases and says that capital punishment “no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose.” It also goes on to say that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment.
The United States has a complicated history with capital punishment. In 1972, it was suspended by the Supreme Court of the United States thanks to the case of Furman v. Georgia. In their ruling, they found that the death penalty had been applied unevenly and that it met the criteria for cruel and unusual punishment, just like yesterday’s Connecticut ruling.
In 1976, the death penalty was allowed to resume, and many states enacted new rules and laws in an attempt to avoid the issues brought forth in the Furman case. However, some of those states have since removed the death penalty as a penalty, and currently 19 states plus Washington D.C. do not allow for it, with a few exceptions allowed for military purposes and treason. Nebraska is the most recent state to abolish it, having done so earlier this year.
Capital punishment still has many issues with how consistently it is applied, especially in regard to race and mental illness. In some states, like Texas, the death penalty is used fairly frequently and executions are common. Criticism has dogged the Lone Star State for years about executing the mentally handicapped and being so quick to use capital punishment. Other states, such as Colorado, take a more measured approach. The James Holmes theater shooting case, for example, was described by many as being a sure thing when it came to executing Holmes, but he received life in prison, thanks primarily to questions about his mental health. Another man awaiting death for shooting up a Chuck E Cheese had his execution delayed by the governor.
Some states have abolished the death penalty in the past as well, even prior to the 1972 suspension of the practice, only to bring it back later due to lynchings. Ironically, the crime it serves to deter the most involves attacks on the very people who would be executed under its use.
140 countries worldwide have abolished the death penalty. The United States routinely draws criticism for its use from the international community, as other nations view it as an archaic and barbaric practice. Proponents argue that having the ultimate penalty reserved for certain crimes acts as a deterrent, and even if it doesn’t the people who commit particularly heinous crimes need to be removed from society in the most permanent way possible.
While the ruling in Connecticut only applies to what happens within its own borders, it is almost certain to be looked to as a precedent across the nation.