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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

YLS Students Play Role in Connecticut’s Decision to Repeal Death Penalty

"Justice is and must be the fundamental consideration in how our society prosecutes and sentences criminals. By that standard, the death penalty has routinely failed to measure up. A just punishment must be applied indiscriminately, blind to racial and economic differences. We have seen that is not the case." -Senator Eric D. Coleman (D-Bloomfield), as the Connecticut State Senate, after many hours of debate, voted 20-16 to cease condemning prisoners to death in the State of Connecticut

The repeal of Connecticut’s death penalty for future crimes is cause for reflection and a sense of accomplishment for many current and former Yale Law School students who worked diligently behind the scenes to make it happen. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed the repeal bill on April 25. It was approved by the Connecticut House and Senate in early April.

The students were instrumental in the production of a report written by former Yale law professor John Donohue, a report that clearly influenced many Connecticut legislators to support the repeal.

“It was a thrilling moment,” said Donohue, “hearing the head of the Connecticut Senate speak at 2 a.m. quoting my report, then Martin Luther King, as the final words in the debate before the repeal passed.”

Completed in October 2011 after five years of work, the report evaluated the application of the death penalty in Connecticut from 1973 until 2007, during which time 4686 murders were committed and nine sustained death sentences were handed down. It demonstrated, through an “egregiousness” rating system, that “arbitrariness and discrimination are defining features of the state’s capital punishment regime” and concluded, “The end result is that identical murders within Connecticut will be treated very differently depending on illegitimate factors, such as race or judicial district.”

A New York Times editorial titled “The Random Horror of the Death Penalty” was built around Donohue’s findings, stating, “An important new study based on capital cases in Connecticut provides powerful evidence that death sentences are haphazardly meted out, with virtually no connection to the heinousness of the crime.”

You may read the Donohue report here.

Donohue, who now teaches at Stanford, first began work on the case in September 2006 in his capacity as an expert witness in litigation challenging the Connecticut death penalty. He said since that time, the contribution of Yale Law School students, who spent hours and hours doing research, data analysis, and other tasks, was “enormous and pivotal.”

“It was an incredible effort,” he stated, “and without the collective talent of a couple of dozen law students, both volunteers and those taking my courses for credit, the report would not have been anywhere near as strong a product.”

Haben Michael ’10, who had worked in prisoner advocacy and was also completing a joint degree in statistics, said, “The project met my interests better than any I could have imagined, as we were applying empirical methods to shine light on inequities in the criminal justice process and suggest reform.”

Other students expressed similar satisfaction with the outcome and their involvement.

“Working on this case was one of the highlights of my law school career, and it’s great to see that our work ultimately paid dividends,” said Patrick Moroney ’12.

“Although now graduated,” wrote Adam Chandler ’11, “I stand ready, willing, and eager to assist further in any way I can.”

Gov. Malloy’s signature on the bill makes Connecticut the 17th state and the fifth in five years to abolish capital punishment.

The following is a list of some of the students who worked on the project:

Kyle Barry ’07
Hannah Benton ’08
Betsy Burke ’11
Adam Chandler ’11
George Collins ’12
Kate Fletcher ’10
David Gopstein ’08
Gretchen Greene ’10
Christopher Griffin ’10
Jamie Hodari ’09
Zac Hudson ’09
Kenneth Jamison ’11
Sonia Kumar ’08
James Kwak ’11
Kiet Lam ’10 BA
Haben Michael ’10
Sai Mohan ’11
Amber Moren ’12
Patrick Moroney ’12
Aileen Nielsen ’11
Matthew Pearl ’10
Meagan Reed ’09
Thomas Stutsman ’10
Maile Tavepholjalern ’11
Daniel Winik ’11
Dan Winnick ’10
Maggie Wittlin ’11