By Catholic News Service
HARTFORD, Conn. (CNS) — The Connecticut Senate voted to repeal the death penalty, positioning the state to become the fifth in five years to ban the practice.
The bill, which replaces the death penalty with life in prison without parole, now heads to the House of Representatives, where observers expected it to pass. Gov. Dannel Malloy has said he would sign the legislation when it reaches his desk.
No date for the House vote had been set as of April 5.
The 20-16 vote was welcomed by the Connecticut Catholic Public Affairs Conference, which represents the state’s Catholic bishops on public policy issues.
“The Catholic conference of Connecticut is thrilled with the passage of the repeal of the death penalty,” executive director Michael C. Culhane told Catholic News Service hours after passage.
Culhane said Archbishop Henry J. Mansell of Hartford and Archbishop William E. Lori, the bishop of Bridgeport newly appointed to head the Baltimore Archdiocese, had contacted legislators seeking the bill’s passage.
The conference also had mounted a campaign through its website and in messages in parish bulletins asking parishioners to contact their elected representatives and ask them to support the bill.
Culhane said the final four-vote margin was not assured until the vote was taken in the early hours of April 5.
The effort to ban capital punishment is the third undertaken in the Legislature in recent years. A 2009 bill passed by the both chambers but was vetoed by then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell. In 2011, a bill banning the practice was passed by a joint House and Senate Judiciary Committee, but died in the Senate.
Parties on both sides of the issue mounted an emotion-filled campaign as the legislation was being debated in the Senate.
Abolition proponents have said the time has come to end the use of capital punishment because the practice is outdated and the risk of killing an innocent victim is too great. Supporters of capital punishment said the practice is suitable for perpetrators of particularly heinous crimes.
The Catholic Church opposes the death penalty except in the most serious of cases when it is the only way society has to “defend human lives against an unjust aggressor,” but the church considers such cases “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”
The U.S. Catholic bishops as a group have spoken out against the death penalty several times since the 1970s, including a comprehensive 1980 statement and a 1999 Good Friday appeal. In 2005, they kicked off Holy Week by launching a Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty.
Individual bishops and state or regional church organizations also have issued dozens of statements and pastoral letters on the topic.
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, called the Connecticut Senate vote “courageous and historic” and said it continues a trend away from use of the death penalty around the country.
“Connecticut’s Legislature has come to the same conclusion that other legislatures have recently made: The death penalty is too risky, too expensive and too unfair to continue,” Dieter said in a statement. “Nationally there is an increasing willingness to replace the death penalty with alternative sentences, such as life without parole, that reduce the risk of executing the innocent and better serve victims’ families.”
Death penalty bans have been enacted in Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York. Sixteen other states have no capital punishment law. California voters will decide in November whether to ban the practice.
PHOTO: People hold a banner and signs on the steps of the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta during a vigil for death-row inmate Troy Davis before his Sept. 21, 2011 execution. More than 200 Catholic theologians, scholars and social justice advocates cite the executions of Troy Davis in Georgia and Lawrence Brewer in Texas in mid-September as prompting their call for abolishing the death penalty (CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin)