John A. Connelly was a tough, hard-nosed prosecutor. Wildly popular in Waterbury, he was also no stranger to controversy.

Connelly, who retired last year after 27 years as Waterbury’s State’s Attorney, died last week at his home following a lengthy battle with colon cancer. He was 63.

Perhaps more than anything, the personable Connelly will be remembered for putting more men on death row than any other prosecutor in state history.

He prosecuted four of Connecticut’s 11 men on death row.

“I certainly learned how to try a case from him,” said New Haven Superior Court Judge Maureen Keegan, who started her career as an assistant state’s attorney under Connelly and ended up working with him for 17 years. “He was an excellent trial attorney; great ease in the courtroom and a very commanding presence.”

Connelly, a Waterbury native, was hired as a prosecutor in Waterbury in 1980. He left in 1983 to become an assistant U.S. attorney, a position he held until 1984, when he was hired to become State’s Attorney of Waterbury. Connelly, who served four years in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, remained the state’s attorney there until 2011.

Connelly brought 22 murder cases to trial; a number that many believe could be the most of any prosecutor in Connecticut history. On top of that, Connelly won six capital convictions [two were later reduced to life sentences on appeal] during the state’s death penalty era. The era ended earlier this year when lawmakers repealed capital punishment.

Four remaining members of death row whom Connelly prosecuted are Sedrick “Ricky” Cobb, Robert Breton, Todd Rizzo, and Richard Reynolds. Keegan, who assisted Connelly in those death row prosecutions, said she learned a lot by watching him work. “Anybody who sat in court and watched John could learn something about how to effectively try a case,” she said.

If there was a case that the death penalty could be sought in Waterbury, Connelly had the reputation of being willing to pursue it. Why?

“If he felt and he believed the evidence was there and the state could sustain its burden of proof, especially in a death penalty case, he was going to let the community make the decision on what the proper sentence should be. Should it be life or should it be death.” said Keegan.

Connelly was often brought in to other jurisdictions to handle especially difficult death penalty cases. For example, Connelly was brought up to Hartford for the grand jury proceedings against retired Hartford Police Officer Bob Lawlor, who was charged and later acquitted in the killing of two unarmed black men in 2005.

“Whenever the chief state’s attorney had a knotty, difficult case, they’d ask John Connelly to handle it,” recalled longtime defense attorney Hugh Keefe. “He never ducked a difficult assignment.”

Despite the accomplishments, towards the end of his career, Connelly ended up hiring Keefe to represent him after federal investigators probed whether he gave preferential treatment to the clients of a Waterbury defense lawyer, Martin Minnella, a childhood friend.

It was widely reported that sources claimed the two often traveled to Las Vegas, with Minnella paying the way.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Connecticut has long maintained that he can neither admit nor deny that any investigation has taken place.

Keefe claims investigators told him his client was not a target of the investigation. However, investigators have never cleared his name.

“I asked repeatedly that they publicly state that the investigation was over” and there was no evidence of wrongdoing,” said Keefe. “But it wasn’t forthcoming.”

Norman Pattis, of Bethany, represents Minnella. Pattis could not be reached for comment last week.

One defense lawyer told the Law Tribune last year he had experience with the Connelly-Minnella connection. Two defendants were charged in the same crime. He said one defendant, represented by Minnella, had his charged dropped, while his client received substantial jail time.

Also, a parent of a defendant who was convicted in Waterbury told the Law Tribune at the time that there is a widespread perception that Connelly played favorites with defense lawyers. “If you stayed on his good side, all went well for you and your clients. But if you questioned or challenged him, life was over and your sentence inflated for no reason.”

Connelly supporters claim he was not only known for being tough but also for giving a defendant a break when he believed it was deserved.

After Thomas Meyer of Roxbury was charged with manslaughter in 2006 in the assisted suicide of his terminally ill, 97-year-old mother, Connelly offered Meyer a plea bargain calling for probation and community service. Meyer accepted the offer.

“Clearly the state’s position in this case is Mr. Meyer is not a bad person,” Connelly said at the time.

“While he had a reputation as a firm and hard-nosed prosecutor he also had a heart not only for families of victims, but not infrequently for defendants who he felt deserved a break,” Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said.

Keegan recalled how Connelly treated victims’ families, something she said rubbed off on the entire office.

“He was incredibly compassionate with those family members of victims who had their loved ones killed in terrible ways,” said Keegan. “He would always take their calls and answer their questions, explaining the process, explaining what was going to happen.”

When he wasn’t busy working, Connelly was a history buff, according to Senior Judge Bradford J. Ward in Hartford Superior Court.

“He loved his hometown,” said Ward, who was also a longtime prosecutor in Waterbury prior to joining the bench. “He knew a lot of history of Waterbury. He’d tell stories.”

Another interest was baseball.

“It was always one of his desires to go to every Major league baseball venue in the United States,” continued Ward. “He was doing pretty good. He made it to quite a few.”

Of course his illness prevented him from fulfilling that entire goal. Connelly’s friends said he was very private about his illness.

“The prognosis got increasingly bad but he never complained,” said Keefe. “You’d ask him how [he's] doing. He’d say ‘Fine, how are you doing.’”

Keefe said that before retiring in early 2011, Connelly was diagnosed with two separate forms of cancer, colon and rectal. Prior to retiring, Connelly had surgery for the colon cancer and because of complications from the surgery, had to go in for a second surgery soon thereafter. After the surgeries, Connelly did a year-long course of chemotherapy.

“He fought his battle with cancer with courage and dignity,” said Ward. “That’s the way he addressed many challenges in life.”

Connelly continued to fight the cancer from his home in Greenville, S.C., where he and his wife of 41-years, Janet, moved after he retired. Connelly died at his home there Sept. 23. The couple had just gone out earlier that morning to get coffee. Connelly is survived by three children and three grandchildren.

Though funeral services were scheduled in South Carolina, the family also would eventually like to hold a memorial service in Waterbury, maybe early next year.•