BRIDGEPORT — A federal court judge has ruled that Connecticut’s 11 former death row inmates can sue the state for causing them “cruel and unusual punishment” when they were re-sentenced to highly restrictive life terms.
In the case of Richard Reynolds, sentenced to death in 1995 for killing a Waterbury police officer in 1992, U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill ruled that the conditions of Reynolds’ confinement violate his rights under the equal protection clause of the constitution.
In 2015, the state Supreme Court declared Connecticut’s death penalty to be unconstitutional and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed a law ordering the state’s 11 death row inmates to be resentenced to life in prison without parole.
The 11 were re-sentenced to the Special Circumstances High Security Unit at Northern Correctional Institution, the state’s maximum security prison, where they are kept separate from other inmates, remain in their cells for most of the day and have limited visitation, limitations Underhill said that violate the constitution.
“The fact that people commit inhumane crimes does not give the state the right to treat them inhumanely,” the judge stated.
In his 57-page decision, Underhill relied partly on the comments of state legislators who advocated abolishing the death penalty to support his conclusion.
“Life in prison is actually worse or even more punitive than being put to death,” state Sen. Joe Crisco Jr., of Woodbridge, said when the legislature was debating repeal of the death penalty.
“How one retains his sanity in an environment like that is incomprehensible,” state Sen. Edith Prague, of Columbia, said at the time.
Underhill issued a permanent injunction barring the state from placing Reynolds in high-security status, which includes having him alone in his cell for more than 21 hours a day, from being segregated from other inmates and not being able to have visitors.
The state has 30 days to submit a status report to the judge detailing how it has complied with his order.
Bridgeport State’s Attorney John Smriga, whose office prosecuted former death row inmates Russell Peeler and Richard Roszkowski, said he is still reviewing the decision.
Peeler was convicted of ordering the murders in January 1999 of 8-year-old B.J. Brown and his mother, Karen Clarke.
Roszkowski was sentenced to death in 2012 for the 2006 murders of a Bridgeport mother, her 9-year-old daughter and a man who came to their aid.