Capital Punishment in Connecticut, 1973-2007


  • John J. Donohue III
Publish Date:
December 15, 2011
Working Paper
  • John J. Donohue. Capital Punishment in Connecticut, 1973-2007: A Comprehensive Evaluation from 4686 Murders to One Execution (2011).


This study explores and evaluates the application of the death penalty in Connecticut from 1973 until 2007, a period during which 4686 murders were committed in the state. The objective is to assess whether the system operates lawfully and reasonably or is marred by arbitrariness, caprice, or discrimination. My empirical approach has three components. First, I provide background information on the overall numbers of murders, death sentences, and executions in Connecticut. The extreme infrequency with which the death penalty is administered in Connecticut raises a serious question as to whether the state’s death penalty regime is serving any legitimate social purpose.

Specifically, of the 4686 murders committed during the sample period, 205 are death-eligible cases that resulted in a homicide conviction, and 138 of these were charged with a capital felony. Of the 92 convicted of a capital felony, 29 then went to a death penalty sentencing hearing, resulting in 9 sustained death sentences, and one execution (in 2005). A comprehensive assessment of this process of winnowing reveals a troubling picture. Overall, the state’s record of handling death-eligible cases represents a chaotic and unsound criminal justice policy that serves neither deterrence nor retribution.

Second, mindful of the Supreme Court’s mandate that “[c]apital punishment must be limited to those offenders who commit ‘a narrow category of the most serious crimes’ and whose extreme culpability makes them ‘the most deserving of execution,’”3I evaluate whether the crimes that result in sustained death sentences are the most egregious relative to other death-eligible murders. Any claim to properly punishing such a narrow and specific category of the most serious offenses can definitively be put to rest. The Connecticut death penalty regime does not select from the class of death-eligible defendants those most deserving of execution. At best, the Connecticut system haphazardly singles out a handful for execution from a substantial array of horrible murders.

Third, I conduct a multiple regression to test more formally for the presence of arbitrariness or discrimination in implementing the death penalty. Specifically, I examine the impact on capital charging and sentencing decisions of legitimate factors that bear on the deathworthiness of 205 death-eligible cases, as well as legally suspect variables—such as race and gender of the defendant, race of victim, or judicial district in which the murder occurred. The Connecticut death penalty system decidedly fails this inquiry; arbitrariness and discrimination are defining features of the state’s capital punishment regime.