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Connecticut High Court Nixes Death Sentences For 11 Remaining Death Row Inmates

The court ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional. The main effect of the ruling is on those put on death row before the state repealed the death penalty in 2012.

Posted on August 13, 2015, at 12:48 p.m. ET

The death chamber at the state prison in Jackson, Georgia.

The death chamber at the state prison in Jackson, Georgia.

The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the state's death penalty violates the state's constitution, sparing the lives of the 11 men on death row. The legislature had repealed the death penalty for future sentences in 2012, but left open the possibility that those sentenced prior to then could be executed.

Inmates who were sentenced to death before the repeal argued that executing them based on the date of the sentence would be an arbitrary distinction. In a 4–3 decision, the court ruled Thursday that "new insights," along with the legislature's ban, show that "the death penalty no longer can be justified as a necessary or appropriate tool of justice."

"Although the prospective nature of [the repeal] reflects the intent of the legislature that capital punishment shall die with a whimper, not with a bang, its death knell has been rung nonetheless," the ruling states. "Our elected representatives have determined that the machinery of death is irreparable or, at the least, unbecoming to a civilized modern state."

The opinion compared the end of the death penalty with the extinction of the dinosaurs. The gradual shift in standards of decency was the state evolving away from the punishment, the opinion stated, with the legislature's repeal serving "as the sociological equivalent of the meteor."

Even without Thursday's ruling, it was already a long shot that the men on death row would actually be executed. The state has only put one man to death in the past 50 years — and in that case the killer voluntarily waived his right to appeals.

The 11 inmates formerly on death row will now face life without the possibility of parole.

In a statement, Gov. Dannel Malloy said it was a "somber day" and that the focus "should not be on the 11 men sitting on death row, but with their victims and those surviving families members."

The issue over whether a death penalty repeal applies to those sentenced prior is one that another state faces as well. The Nebraska legislature repealed the death penalty earlier this year, although its governor believes he will still be able to execute those remaining on death row.

Read the full ruling: