The Law Tribune will preview an interesting or important case most weeks when the state Appellate Court or state Supreme Court are in session.
Case: Daniel Webb v. Commissioner of Correction
Court: Connecticut Supreme Court
Date: Tuesday, October 22
Time: 12 p.m.
Attorneys: Richard A. Reeve; Michael O. Sheehan; Timothy J. Sugrue
Summary: A man on death row for kidnapping and killing a bank executive in 1989 is challenging his death sentence in light of the state’s repeal of the death penalty last year. The death penalty repeal only applies to cases going forward, not convictions that already occurred.
Background: On Aug. 24, 1989, Daniel Webb kidnapped Diane Gellenbeck at gunpoint from a parking garage in downtown Hartford, drove her to Keney Park and attempted to rape her. The woman, a bank executive, briefly escaped from Webb but he then shot her twice in the back.
As the badly injured woman screamed and tried crawling away, Webb calmly got into his car, drove closer to Gellenbeck, got back out of his car and shot her three more times at point blank range, killing her.
In 1991, Webb was convicted of capital felony and sentenced to death for Gellenbeck’s kidnapping and murder. After his death sentence was upheld on appeal, Webb brought a habeas action claiming that his appellate counsel was ineffective. His habeas petition was denied.
Webb now challenges that denial of the habeas petition. While the appeal is no surprise coming from a man on death row who is attempting to avoid execution, Webb is also challenging his death sentence in light of last year’s decision by the legislature to repeal the death penalty in Connecticut, a statute that does not apply retroactively.
Specifically, Webb, through his appellate lawyers, Richard A. Reeve and Michael O. Sheehan, of Sheehan & Reeve in New Haven, are arguing that the passage of the repeal establishes that the death penalty is inconsistent with present-day standards of decency in Connecticut and no longer serves any valid penological objective. Therefore, they say, Webb’s execution would constitute cruel and unusual punishment and violate his constitutional rights to due process and equal protection.
“Simply put, the execution of Daniel Webb after the death penalty has been repealed would be illegal,” write Webb’s lawyers in court documents.
“First, not once in the history of our nation’s experiments with the death penalty has a jurisdiction ever executed a person after a repeal of the death penalty,” write attorneys Sheehan and Reeve. “Second … the United States is not alone in this regard. There are no reported post-repeal executions in modern history, in any jurisdiction, in any part of the world. Third, after repeal, no offense — no matter how egregious — will ever be subject to the death penalty. In light of these undisputed facts, [Webb's] execution would plainly be ‘unusual’ — whether by the standards of Connecticut, the United States, or the world.”
Webb told the Associated Press in a death row interview last year that he thinks there would be no capital punishment in the state for anyone, if not for the public’s desire to execute the men responsible for the 2007 home-invasion slayings of a mother and her two daughters in suburban Cheshire. The only survivor of that crime, Dr. William Petit, lobbied to keep the death penalty for the men who killed his family, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky.
“Dr. Petit is angry with them and with his anger he wants to kill all of us” who were on death row at the time lawmakers voted to repeal the death penalty, said Webb. “Now you are trying to increase my suffering and take away the little that I had because you want to make Komisarjevsky suffer. That’s not right.”
Assistant State’s Attorney Timothy J. Sugrue argues that the state’s savings statute — a statute that specifically exempts certain remedies from an amendment, repeal or law — prevents members of death row from being affected by the forward-looking death penalty repeal law.
“Solidifying application of the savings statutes here is the fact that [Webb's] judgment of conviction and sentence of death achieved finality many years prior to the enactment of the [repeal],” Sugrue wrote in his Supreme Court briefs. “Society has a strong interest in preserving the finality of criminal judgments and sentences which were valid at the time of their imposition.”
Sugrue further argues that if Webb is executed, it would not violate any constitutional rights or be cruel and unusual punishment in light of the prospective repeal of capital punishment.
“Persons like [Webb] who committed their offenses prior to the effective date of the [repeal] deliberately dared society to catch them, convict them, and sentence them to die. It is entirely rational to ensure that a sentence of death that a defendant brought upon him or herself in this deliberate manner is carried out,” wrote Sugrue.
This is not the first challenge of the death penalty repeal law to reach the state Supreme Court. Earlier this year, Eduardo Santiago also challenged it. Last year, Santiago was granted a new penalty phase hearing in his capital conviction for killing a West Hartford man in 2000. Santiago is challenging the need for another death penalty phase hearing in light of the fact that the state has repealed the death penalty for those convicted of murder after the law’s passage. •