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Death Penalty Studies At Odds?

Hearing To Address Inmates' Bias Claims

By KATIE MELONE, Courant Staff Writer

December 13, 2007

A recently released study has found race and geography play a factor in capital punishment in Connecticut, bolstering the claims of seven death row inmates who say the system is both arbitrary and "infected by bias." But the state has shot back with accusations that the public defender's office is purposely withholding a 4-year-old study on the same bias issues because it contradicts the recent one.

The potentially dueling studies will be raised among other issues today during a hearing at Northern Correctional Institution where all seven inmates and their dozen or so lawyers will be present. Attorneys will argue on a motion by the state to dismiss the inmates' habeas corpus petitions, which are based on the claims of racial and geographical bias.

The linchpin of the inmates' lawyers' case appears to be a commissioned study by a Yale Law School professor. He concluded that the capital punishment system is capricious and random; non-white defendants are treated more harshly than white defendants, especially in cases with white victims; and the so-called "egregiousness" of the killings seems to be irrelevant when it comes to who is sentenced to death both within and across judicial districts.

"In sum our findings do not support the statement that the death penalty is imposed only in the 'worst of the worst' cases," John J. Donohue III wrote in his study, dated Nov. 30.

The study cost $256,000 and was paid for with funds provided by Connecticut's Public Defender Services Commission, according to a July 12 state's motion to dismiss the habeas petitions. The study had not yet been completed at the time of the state's motion.

The 2003 study, also commissioned by the Public Defender Services Commission, was "to have been the most detailed and thorough analysis of such data prepared for any State in the Country," according to the state's motion.

The funds for the original study were authorized by the commission in 1998, and an initial report was completed in 2003, but the final report has yet to be released. Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane even wrote Susan O. Storey, the chief public defender, in May requesting a copy. He was told Storey would not surrender it voluntarily, according to the court papers. Prosecutors have also filed a pending motion and a freedom of information request to compel the public defender to turn over that earlier study.

"The circumstances surrounding what amounts to the suppression of the 2003 study commission by the Office of the Chief Public Defender certainly suggest that it is its conclusion (as opposed to its competence) that has led to its disavowal by the petitioners," the motion reads.

Storey on Tuesday declined to comment on the 2003 study. Attorney Michael Sheehan, a New Haven attorney who represents death row inmate Daniel Webb, also declined to comment.

In court papers, they have said that the prosecutors' claims about their 2003 study are frivolous and speculative.

The death row inmates' claims of bias began with Sedrick Cobb in 1994, when he asked for the opportunity to present statistics to demonstrate that racial discrimination influenced the death penalty. Cobb, who is African American, had been convicted in the December 1989 rape and killing of a 23-year-old white woman in Waterbury. Cobb was eventually told by the state Supreme Court that he would have to lodge his claims about racial bias in a habeas petition.

In 2003, the court mandated that all death row inmates' claims of bias be consolidated into one habeas action.

In 2005, when the inmates' attorneys said they were not ready for trial on the petitions because they didn't yet have their study, Judge George Levine, the special master appointed to the case, said "I mean it seems to me you've had 10 or 11 years," according to court papers.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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