The wealthy, liberal state is one of the last in the Northeast to have a death penalty law and would join New Mexico, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York as the most recent to outlaw capital punishment. Repeal proposals are pending in several other states, including Kansas and Kentucky, while an initiative to end the death penalty goes before California voters in November.
Like Connecticut, states that have recently decided to abolish capital punishment were among those that rarely executed inmates. New Jersey, for example, hasn't executed anyone in more than 40 years.
Death sentences and executions are also plummeting around the country as fewer prosecutors push capital punishment cases, often because of new laws that allow life with no possibility of parole as a sentencing option.
The possibility of executing the innocent, driven by the rise of DNA as a tool to exonerate wrongfully convicted defendants, is the biggest overall factor driving states to reconsider capital punishment, said Doug Berman, an Ohio State University law professor.
"That has the most profound and enduring resonance as an argument and one that can never be pushed back," Berman said.
The Senate debate Thursday focused on how the law could affect the state's 11 death-row inmates, including the two men behind the 2007 home invasion attack in the New Haven suburb of Cheshire. They killed a woman and her two daughters after tormenting the family for hours. The lone survivor of the attack, William Petit, successfully lobbied state lawmakers to hold off on repeal last year when one of the killers was still facing trial.
"We believe in the death penalty because we believe it is really the only true, just punishment for certain heinous and depraved murders," Petit said Wednesday. "One thing you never hear the abolitionists talk about is the victims, almost never. The forgotten people. The people who died and can't be here to speak for themselves."
Connecticut would become the 17th state without a death penalty. Executions in the United States have declined from a high of 98 in 1999 to 43 last year, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. The number of people sentenced to death each year has also dropped sharply, from 300 a decade ago to 78 last year, he said.
Connecticut has carried out only one execution in 51 years Judges, lawyers and victims' families have blamed foot-dragging by the courts and lawyers and the complexity of the appeal system for delays in executing others.