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Court Finds No Proof Of Racial Bias In Connecticut Death Penalty Cases

A habeas corpus lawsuit filed by five convicted killers claiming that Connecticut’s death penalty is racially biased was denied on Friday, almost a year a...

A habeas corpus lawsuit filed by five convicted killers claiming that Connecticut’s death penalty is racially biased was denied on Friday, almost a year after the trial in state Superior Court ended and more than eight years after the the case began.

In a 44-page decision, Judge Samuel J. Sferrazza wrote that the inmates had failed to prove any racial, ethical or geographical disparity in the state’s application of the death penalty, either in specific cases or collectively.

The petitioners’ claim depended greatly on a study of Connecticut death penalty prosecutions first authorized by the state Supreme Court in 1995 after it was presented with information indicating that the administration of the death penalty had been disproportionally applied to black defendants, or to defendants whose victims were white. The Supreme Court directed that the information be analyzed to explain any racial disparities.

That led to a study by Stanford Law School professor John J. Donohue, III, of all homicides prosecuted in Connecticut between 1973 and 2006. Donohue concluded, and testified in court, that there has been bias.

Sferrazza wrote that not only is the generic statistical information provided by Donohue insufficient to prove racial disparity under the state’s requirements, but that Donohue’s conclusions were “questionable and lacked probative value.”

Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said while his office expects the men to file further appeals, he believes the court’s finding is very important.

“We’re pleased with the results, absolutely,” Kane said.

The five men wanted their sentences converted to life imprisonment without parole. The trial was conducted for more than 10 days from September to December 2012 in a makeshift courtroom inside Northern Correctional Institution in Somers, which houses the state’s 11 death-row inmates.

These inmates still face execution despite the state legislature’s abolition of the death penalty in 2012, as the abolition does not apply to people already on death row whose crimes predated the legislation.

Petitioners in the lawsuit include Sedrick Cobb, Daniel Webb, Todd Rizzo, Richard Reynolds and Robert Breton.

Cobb was convicted of capital felony, kidnapping, murder, sexual assault and robbery in the 1989 attack on 23-year-old Julia Ashe of Watertown. Breton received a death sentence in 1989 on two counts of murder and one count of capital felony for the 1987 beating and stabbing deaths of his ex-wife and their 16-year-old son in Waterbury. Reynolds was sentenced in 1995 for the murder of Waterbury police Officer Walter T. Williams in 1992. Rizzo was sentenced in 2005 for the 1997 sledgehammer murder of 13-year-old Stanley Edwards of Waterbury. Webb was also convicted in 1989, of the murder of bank executive Diane Gellenbeck in Hartford, after he abducted her from a parking garage, drove her to Keney Park, tried to sexually assault her, and shot her repeatedly after she broke free and ran from the vehicle.

By Kelly Glista, Hartford Courant