March 04, 2016 Articles

State v. Santiago: Connecticut Highlights Quandaries of Death Penalty Repeals

A watershed case in the death penalty movement may be seen as a brazen example of judicial activism.

By Jessica A.R. Hamilton

Nineteen states, including seven in the last decade, have abolished capital punishment through various legislative and judicial means. Some states have struggled, however, with how to deal with those individuals on death row at the time of the repeal, as many of these repeals are aimed at future crimes only. When Connecticut abolished the death penalty in 2012, it only did so prospectively, with neither the legislature nor the governor commuting the sentences of the 11 inmates on death row at the time of the repeal. The question of whether the state could abolish the death penalty prospectively while leaving these inmate’s death penalty sentences intact thus fell to the Connecticut Supreme Court in the recent case of State v. Santiago (Santiago II), 318 Conn. 1 (2015), which resulted in an unexpected holding that the death penalty itself, as a whole, is unconstitutional under the state’s constitution. This case represents a watershed moment in the death penalty repeal movement, but, as the dissents assert, it has the potential to be seen by some as a brazen example of judicial activism.

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