January 3, 2008 — Vol. 43, No. 21
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Questions surround study on Conn. death penalty cases

Dave Collins

HARTFORD, Conn. — State prosecutors are questioning why lawyers for Connecticut death row inmates abandoned a publicly funded study of potential biases in death penalty cases in favor of a second review that cost taxpayers another $256,000.

In documents filed last month in Rockville Superior Court, prosecutors suggest that the inmates’ lawyers sought the second study for their court appeals because the first one did not support their allegations of racial and geographical biases in the state’s use of the death penalty.

Prosecutors have been unsuccessful in attempts to get the inmates’ lawyers and officials with the Chief Public Defender’s Office, which funded both studies, to release a copy of the first report. Prosecutors say it was completed in 2003 and cost more than $500,000.

The Chief State’s Attorney’s Office has filed both a motion in Superior Court and a complaint with the state Freedom of Information Commission to compel the release of the 2003 study. Both actions are pending.

In a motion filed last month, the inmates’ lawyers said they disputed prosecutors’ claims that the first study did not support their allegations, and they accused prosecutors of speculating about its conclusions. That motion does not say why the lawyers sought the second study.

The lawyers are from private practices and are being paid by the Chief Public Defender’s Office to represent seven of Connecticut’s nine death row inmates in long-running “habeas corpus” cases in Superior Court. In habeas cases, inmates challenge their incarceration outside the usual appeals route.

The seven habeas cases have been combined into one case that is pending before state Superior Court Judge Stanley T. Fuger Jr.

Fuger recently presided over an unusual hearing at Northern Correctional Institution in Somers, with all seven inmates taking part.

The hearing is on a motion by the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office to dismiss the cases.

Senior Assistant State’s Attorney John Massameno says death row inmates have been saying since 1994 that they would produce a study backing their claims that racial discrimination mars the administration of the death penalty in Connecticut.

“At each capital sentencing hearing, they have promised that the study’s completion is but a few months away,” Massameno wrote in the motion, which was filed before the recent release of the new report.

Referring to the 2003 study, he wrote, “Yet, when afforded the opportunity to proceed to trial, the petitioners have balked, disavowing the very study that they have relied upon for many years to impugn their sentences and delay their executions.”

Massameno said the 2003 report, authorized by the Public Defender’s Office in 1998, is significant because its preliminary results were presented to the state Supreme Court during death row inmate Sedrick Cobb’s appeal and to the legislature in a report produced by the Commission on the Death Penalty.

He also said, in a court filing, that promises have been made that the full 2003 report would be presented in several capital cases and to the legislature.

Lawyers for the inmates have said the 2003 study does show that race plays a role in who is charged with capital felony and who is sentenced to death.

The latest study, led by Yale Law School professor John J. Donohue III, found that minorities are disproportionately sentenced to die for their crimes in Connecticut, and decisions to seek the death penalty are often arbitrary. Prosecutors dispute the report’s findings.

The first study was overseen by lawyer Elizabeth Vila Rogan and involved researchers from the University of Pennsylvania.

(Associated Press)

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