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Friday, September 21 Local

Repeal of death penalty hurt McDonald

It was 13 minutes of soul searching, hurried consultations with leadership, head counting and — finally for some conflicted lawmakers — pressing the red button in the historic hall of the state House of Representatives.

Veteran Rep. Fred Camillo, R-Greenwich, was surrounded by GOP colleagues during the dramatic period before he finally hit the red button on his desk, voting against Supreme Court Justice Andrew J. McDonald, a man he respects and considers a friend.

After waiting and waiting, looking up at the electronic tally boards and talking quietly in the back of the bustling chamber with House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, first-term Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire counted the votes and saw she had enough room, barely, to vote against McDonald without actually sinking his candidacy.

For both, and for many others who voted against McDonald’s candidacy, which next moves to the state Senate, the issue was the 2012 repeal of the death penalty in Connecticut and its subsequent expansion to Death Row inmates three years later.

While there were a variety of reasons for opposition to McDonald in the razor-thin House vote, including a dislike of Malloy and disagreement with McDonald on other decisions, the predominant one cited in the debate was the expansion of the death penalty. House Republican Leader Themis Klarides said there was no House caucus position, no showing of hands behind closed doors on McDonald’s nomination.

After Speaker of the House Joe Aresimowicz called for the vote Monday after three-and-a-half hours of debate, it took Camillo the better part of 10 minutes to finally vote. Linehan waited until the very end.

“In my 10 years up there I have never been so conflicted,” Camillo said Tuesday. “I had intended to vote yes, but I had an obligation to really listen to all the arguments. The one issue that bothered me was the way the death-penalty repeal was passed and the promises that were made.”

Waiting till verdict is clear

As the minutes went by in the House and the white lights spelling out the names of 151 House members began to turn to green or red, with the letters Y or N next to them, several House Republicans congregated around Camillo’s desk. He’d never experienced that before, but didn’t really hear much, amid the conversational roar in the chamber, which had remained abnormally silent during the debate.

“You’re kind of tuning everything out,” Camillo said, remembering looking at the board as the colors filled in. “I was weighing all the positives and negatives. I knew I wasn’t going to feel good. Your heart ached one way or the other. They all knew I was struggling with this.”

When Camillo finally voted no, Linehan — who had joined Middletown Mayor Dan Drew’s campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination as his lieutenant governor running mate before he withdrew last year — was standing up against the wall in the back of the chamber, speaking to the Majority Leader Ritter, D-Hartford.

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A first-termer in a swing district, Linehan was torn between helping McDonald and representing her district, which still remembers the horror of the Petit family murders. Finally, when the 149 lawmakers present had made their decisions, Linehan voted no. McDonald was confirmed 75-74.

“It was a very difficult decision for Liz,” Aresimowicz said in a Tuesday phone interview. “She knows Andrew and thinks he’s a superb Supreme Court justice. In the end she cast her vote against the nomination, based on the feelings of her district.”

In all five Democrats joined Republicans, including Linehan, Rep. Bruce V. Morris of Norwalk, Rep. Larry Butler of Waterbury, Rep. Minnie Gonzalez of Hartford and Rep. Dan Rovero of Killingly.

All Republicans, except Rep. Livvy Floren, of Greenwich, voted red. Butler had a brother who was murdered and said during the debate that he felt betrayed by the expansion of the death penalty by the high court.

As a state senator in 2009, McDonald voted to end capital punishment, but the bill was vetoed by then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell. When Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed similar legislation in 2012, amid promises that the repeal would not affect the eventual lethal injections for the state’s 11 Death Row inmates, McDonald was his chief legal counsel.

As a Supreme Court justice, McDonald sided in the narrow, 4-3 decision that led to the life sentences for inmates including Russell Peeler of Bridgeport, who ordered the killing of a mother and her young son; and Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky for the 2007 home invasion, rape and murders of the wife and two daughters of now-state Rep. William Petit of Cheshire.

At the time the high court ruled that capital punishment for Death Row inmates was “incompatible with contemporary standards of decency” in the state. Eventually the Death Row inmates were resentenced to life without the possibility of release.

Church ruling

Morris, an associate pastor at the Macedonia Church in Norwalk, said he disliked an issue that might have changed the way the Roman Catholic Church is incorporated. The issue emerged after two priests were caught after million-dollar embezzelments in Catholic churches in Greenwich and Darien and the lawmakers discovered that 100-year-old law protects the church hierarchy from liability.

“This is more than a vote about Andrew McDonald, in my mind,” said Morris, who bucked his party and voted against the nominee. “Those priests did an injustice, but that’s what we have criminal laws for. How many of you want Connecticut to determine the governance of your house of worship?”

McDonald’s candidacy will head to the Senate next week where if Republicans unite against him, the nomination of the person who could become the first openly gay chief justice in the nation, will fail at least 18-17 following the recusal of Sen. Gayle S. Slossberg, D-Milford.

State Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee who summed up the issue before the green-and-red lights on Monday, said a lot more than a judge’s career is at stake.

“What is really in dispute?” Tong asked, noting that if a future Republican governor nominates a candidate who is rejected by a partisan Democratic House majority “it ends up in a very ugly place” including a possible constitutional crisis in the Constitution State.

kdixon@ctpost.com Twitter: @KenDixonCT

Ken Dixon|State Capitol reporter/columnist Hearst Connecticut Media

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