HARTFORD — Over her 27 years as a state lawmaker, Sen. Joan Hartley (D-15) has established herself as a supporter of the death penalty.
This week, she stood her ground.
With Hartley dissenting, the Senate voted early Thursday morning 20-16 to approve legislation to abolish the death penalty in the future.
During the Senate debate, Hartley said she had another, more personal reason for voting against the repeal bill in addition to her longstanding position.
Hartley said her family and the family of Dr. William A. Petit Jr. had been close because her daughter and the older Petit daughter were friends.
Two small-time crooks beat Petit nearly to death and murdered his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and the couple’s daughters, Hayley, 17 and Michaela, in an invasion of the family’s Cheshire home nearly five years ago.
This week, Hartley recounted the friendship that developed between her family and the Petits.
“We had sleepovers together. We had birthdays, celebrations, graduations, softball trips, basketball tournaments, college acceptances. I remember when Hayley got accepted to college, the college her father had gone to,” she said.
The two killers, Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, are now sitting on death row awaiting execution, and Hartley wants to make sure that never changes.
Other lawmakers had been quick to seize on the murders, starting the day after the killings, but not Hartley.
Capitol observers did not recall her mentioning her connection to the Petits in such a way before this year’s debate.
The tears that welled in Hartley’s eyes and the quiver in her voice as she spoke about the Petit family were not affectations. They were as real as the love and the pain she still carries in her heart today.
The Waterbury lawmaker, whose district includes a portion of Naugatuck, said she could not read the news accounts of the murders, and tried unsuccessfully to keep them from her daughter.
“We could not talk about it for a long time, and then we talked about for a little bit, and then we talked about it and couldn’t finish talking about it,” Hartley said.
She recalled how Jennifer Hawke-Petit went to a bank with Hayes to withdraw money in hopes of saving her family, probably not sure whether her husband was alive or dead.
“She could have gotten away from him, but she went back, and I think over and over in my mind what I would have done, why did she go back, and, knowing Jennifer as I knew her, she was a mother first and foremost,” Hartley said.
She said she believed her friend went back because she believed Komisarjevsky and Hayes when they said they would leave once they got the money.
“She took the money out and she went back and the rest of the story is what you all read in the newspaper, but she went back because of the two girls, her two little girls,” Hartley said.
She told Senate colleagues that her position on capital punishment is well-known, but she was also voting against repeal because she fears an appeals court might commute the sentences of Hayes and Komisarjevsky to life imprisonment without the possibility of release.
The legislation the Senate passed would repeal the death penalty prospectively from its effective date onward.
Senators disputed whether the 11 inmates on death row would be able to successfully appeal their sentences if the legislation becomes law.
“I am confident that it cannot happen,” said Sen. Eric D. Coleman, D-Bloomfield, the Senate chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Hartley said there are no guarantees that courts will uphold the death sentences of the 11 inmates on death row today, including the killers of the Petit family.
Other opponents of the legislation made the same argument, saying there is no telling how state and federal courts might rule on death row appeals.
The legislation reclassifies the six capital crimes that now carry the death penalty as “murder with special circumstances.” The legislation proposes to punish what are now capital crimes with life sentences without the possibility of release from its effective date onward.
The Senate passed a Democratic amendment that would set new conditions of confinement for individuals convicted of such murders.
Inmates convicted of a murder with special circumstances will be incarcerated in separate housing units, they will be confined to their cells 22 hours a day and they will not be permitted to work outside of their segregated unit.
Additionally, their cells will be searched twice a week and they will have to change cells every two weeks. They will not be able to move without being continuously escorted and monitored. They also will not be allowed any contact with visitors.
The state House of Representatives is expected to vote on the bill next week. Gov. Dannel Malloy has said he will sign the legislation if it reaches his desk.