There is no proof of a systemic racial disparity in the way Connecticut prosecutors have sought the death penalty, a judge ruled Friday, denying claims from five death row inmates who sought to have their sentences overturned.
Rockville Superior Court Judge Samuel Sferrazza issued his ruling in a consolidated habeas corpus appeal filed by the inmates in 2005, before the state repealed capital punishment for future cases last year.
Not only did the inmates fail to offer sufficient proof of a racial component in pursuit of the death penalty, the judge wrote, it wouldn’t be enough to force their sentences to be overturned.
“The salient question is not whether race may influence death penalty outcomes in Connecticut,” Sferrazza wrote. “The critical issue is … whether the death sentence of any of the petitioners in this case was the product of intentional discrimination.”
Citing U.S. and state Supreme Court rulings, Sferrazza wrote that studies showing a systemic racial or other bias with the death penalty can be used as evidence during reviews of imposed death sentences. “However, such generic evidence, by itself, is insufficient to overturn a death sentence,” Sferrazza wrote.
Six of the 10 men on death row are black and three are white, while blacks make up 10 percent of the state’s population.
The inmates’ appeal said statistics showed that decisions on who should be charged with capital felony and made eligible for a potential death sentences in Connecticut were made arbitrarily and with geographic bias, depending on the prosecutor and judicial district, and with racial bias.
Key evidence for the inmates was a study by Stanford University professor John Donahue, who reviewed the nearly 4,700 murders in Connecticut from 1973 to 2007. The report found black defendants receive death sentences as three times the rate of white defendants in cases with white victims, killers of white victims are treated more severely than the killers of minorities, and minorities who kill whites receive the death penalty at higher rates than minorities who kill minorities.
“Doctor Donahue’s testimony was a relevant starting point but a far cry from the proof necessary to establish the invalidity of the death sentence imposed upon the individual petitioners,” the judge wrote in his ruling.
State prosecutors disagreed with the study’s findings and presented their own expert who disputed much of Donahue’s report.
Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said his office was pleased with the outcome and that the case had finally made it to trial.
“Our position all along has been that there is no racial disparity … in the manner in which the death penalty statutes have been administered in this state,” he said.
Kane said he expects defense lawyers will appeal the decision. Messages to the attorneys were not immediately returned Friday evening.
The state’s last execution was in 2005, when serial killer Michael Ross, who was white, was put to death by lethal injection after giving up his appeals. It was the first execution in New England in more than 45 years.