Accused Cheshire Killers
"If this were my family,
would I want
the most extreme sanction
for those convicted? "
By RICHARD MEEHAN
The Cool Justice Report
Aug. 9, 2007
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com
I recall standing with the most notable members of Connecticut's criminal defense bar on Thursday January 13, 2005, before a bank of television cameras in the Legislative Office Building in Hartford as the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association sponsored a rally opposing the imminent execution of serial killer Michael Ross.
Like my colleagues, I was not there in support of Ross or seeking leniency for him. Ross had acknowledged his guilt and waived any further appeals, inviting execution. Rather, we stood opposed to the death penalty, in any form.
Other than abortion, no other legal issue has engendered so much passionate debate.
Whether you oppose the death penalty on religious or moral grounds, we wanted a halt to Connecticut's first execution in 40 years, and first since the United States Supreme Court had once again approved capital punishment. Ours was not a position grounded on sentiment, but rather questioned the lack of uniform standards and racial inequities that are apparent in the exercise by the state of the choice to expose some to the death penalty while others, charged as well with murder, are not.
We advanced the fact that there is no central decision making authority applying the same standards to all potential capital cases. In the federal system, there is a central decision making authority within the Justice Department that ostensibly applies the same standards to the decision to seek death in all eligible cases.
Questions existed then, and continue to exist, that the imposition of the death penalty together with the decision to seek it, suggests racial imbalance.
The Public Defenders capital defense team has advanced the issue that minority defendants are at greater risk to be exposed to the death penalty than their caucasian counterparts.
There were those present who had studied the fact that the Innocence Project, started by Barry Scheck and others, had uncovered a legion of cases where people were wrongly convicted based on eyewitness accounts or false confessions. The advent of DNA testing led to the reversal of many convictions, in fact, topping 200 as of this year. Many of those were capital defendants awaiting execution.
Imagine the horror of being wrongfully convicted of a crime and being strapped to the gurney for lethal injection!
Legal issues aside, many of us there that day simply believed that a society of laws exists to preserve life and not take it, even in retribution.
The allegations surrounding the Cheshire home invasion case and the brutal and senseless loss of life have caused me to question my stance in opposition to the death penalty. Reading the news accounts and seeing the grief etched on the face of Dr. Petit trying to come to terms with how his family could have been destroyed, create a reaction, on a visceral level: If this were my family would I want the most extreme sanction for those convicted? I don't know.
These men will be afforded an aggressive defense, and the due process rights our Constitution guarantees. Eventually, 12 members of our community will be called upon to weigh their guilt and possibly whether their lives should be forfeited. That is for another day.
But today, as we reflect on whether a society of laws should take life in retribution for lives taken we must continue to examine the issue without passion, calmly and with reason.
Bridgeport attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's corruption trial. Meehan is certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy since 1994 and serves on the organizations Board of Examiners. He is a Charter Fellow, American Academy of Trial Counsel. Meehan has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on Court TV. Website, www.meehanlaw.com