The Death Penalty Epilogue
By Carissa Barstis
New England hadn’t executed anyone in 45 years. May 13, 2005 in Somers, Connecticut was to be the first execution since 1960 for the entire region. Michael Ross had been on death row for 18 years for assaulting and killing four women in the 1980s, but confessed to murdering eight women in total ages 14 to 25. He waived his appeals and said he wanted to die, making him the first inmate executed via lethal injection in the state.
Sheila Denion remembers that day on the outskirts of Osborn Correctional Institution clearly. She was in attendance as a concerned citizen with the other 300 anti-death penalty protesters, quietly staking out amidst the press across from the scattered dozen or so in attendance who were pro-death penalty. Denion credits that day for being the catalyst to push her towards the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty (CNADP).
That same year she began volunteering for the CNADP, a grassroots non-profit group founded in 1986 that focuses on reforms to reduce wrongful convictions, educating the public about capital punishment issues, and abolishing the death penalty. Even though Connecticut has only executed one inmate since 1960, it still has 11 people on death row, and Denion stresses the importance of not having anyone else wait upon the needle. According to Denion, the emotional toll of death row is “cruel and unusual” in itself, and she notes that it is also more expensive for the state to go through the lengthy appeals process involved in capital punishment cases than it is to keep someone in prison. “It is a waste on every level, and I wanted to help put a stop to it.”
When Denion joined in the mid 2000s, the CNADP was still volunteer-run. But by 2009 when they were gearing up for a serious push for repeal, she had made it to Project Director and they were a funded organization with paid employees. “That was a busy time for us, we were very organized. We went to every legislative session – we did not relent until repeal happened,” says Denion. The disorganization of death penalty advocates showed during that time, as “very few people were there in support [of the death penalty].” The CNADP was able to celebrate in 2012 when Connecticut repealed the death penalty (with the caveat that it is not retroactive – any person currently on death row will stay there), but they remain vigilant about helping other states on their quest for eliminating capital punishment.
With the repeal of the death penalty came the cessation of the CNADP’s funding, which went to other states that need a similar push for repeal. Back to being an all-volunteer organization, Denion says the CNADP’s focus is now back to educating the public as well as being aware of any bills introduced to the legislature that want to restore the death penalty. There have been two bills introduced this year alone: H.B. 5197 called for the restoration of the death penalty for the crime of murder with special circumstances, and H.B. 5261 would have reinstated the death penalty for the murder of a police officer, corrections officer, or first responder. The CNADP is monitoring both closely. “They aren’t getting much traction,” says Denion, and bills like these are the reason why the CNADP will stay steadfast on their mission to educate.
Denion’s passion keeps her very active in continuing the fight for the abolition of the death penalty within the United States. For her, Connecticut’s repeal of the death penalty, while a major victory full of relief and pride, is still just a stepping-stone to eliminating it completely from the country. “Educating people on the topic is the most important thing we can do right now, both in keeping the death penalty out of Connecticut as well as helping it disappear from our country,” Denion says. The end result would be two-fold: abolishment of the death penalty is big news, bringing further attention to incarceration issues; this, in turn, allows for resources and education to now be focused on prison reform.
“While our focus is primarily on the death penalty, we do support Governor Malloy’s Second Chance Society…that is the next logical step once the death penalty is gone completely,” says Denion, referencing the Governor’s initiative aimed at reforming Connecticut’s sentencing and incarceration practices. “It is important to me that we start seeing sentences commuted to life rather than capital punishment throughout the rest of the country – it’s important that the rate of death sentences go down to nothing.”
Denion is optimistic about the future of capital punishment in the United States. She notes that there is a steady downward trend in public approval and there are fewer executions happening. “I would like to see a national repeal in ten to fifteen years,” she says, noting that she would love to be able to ultimately dismantle the CNADP because they’re “just not needed anymore.” Until then, however, the CNADP will continue to speak at conferences, talk to those who are curious, and watch out for the bills to re-instate the death penalty that continually try to sneak their way back into law. The CNADP will keep working with other states until the death penalty is no longer a reality in the country, and then it will gladly bow out.