HARTFORD, Conn. – The vote to repeal Connecticut's death penalty brought a moment of triumph for Elizabeth Brancato, a lifelong opponent of capital punishment despite the murder of her mother in 1979.
Brancato had lobbied lawmakers for years, becoming more resolved against capital punishment as she met families of other victims frustrated by endless appeals. She also started a blog to highlight the voices of other victims' relatives in favor of repeal that she felt were overshadowed in the debate.
She was at the statehouse Wednesday night as the state legislature gave final approval to a bill that will make Connecticut the 17th state to repeal capital punishment. A week earlier, she was in the gallery when it cleared its biggest hurdle with an early morning vote in the state Senate.
"It was one of the best moments of my life," Brancato said.
Brancato is among roughly 180 relatives of crime victims who pushed for repeal in private meetings with lawmakers, via petition drives and at news conferences. National advocates say the large size of their campaign sets Connecticut apart from other states, but relatives who oppose the death penalty are speaking up more often across the United States.
On the other side of the debate, death penalty supporters had perhaps the state's most compelling advocate in Dr. William Petit Jr., the only survivor of a 2007 home invasion in which two paroled burglars killed his wife and two daughters. Last year, Petit successfully lobbied state senators to hold off on legislation for repeal while one of the two killers was still facing a death penalty trial.
This year, many lawmakers said they were swayed by the stories of people who oppose capital punishment despite losing loved ones to horrific crimes.
Rep. Kim Rose, a Milford Democrat, said she decided to support repeal after speaking with a man who found peace by forgiving his son's killer.
"The moment I looked into his eyes and heard his story and I felt his pain, I got (it)," she said. "For him to finally come to some closure with it, was kind of a turning point for me."
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, said he will sign the bill into law as soon as it reaches his desk, making Connecticut the fifth state in five years to repeal the death penalty. The legislation will apply only to future cases and not the 11 men already on the state's death row.
In more than half a century, Connecticut has executed only one person — serial killer Michael Ross, who volunteered for the lethal injection in 2005.
Brancato, a Torrington resident whose mother was killed inside her Bantam home, wasn't forced to think about the death penalty in her own case because the killer was convicted of second-degree murder. But she said it did not sway her moral opposition to capital punishment.
"For those of us who believe killing is wrong, it somehow diminishes the deaths of our loved ones if we say in certain circumstances it is OK to kill," Brancato said.
Shari Silberstein, the executive director of Equal Justice USA, said it is unusual to have so many victims' family members involved in a repeal campaign. In Maryland, for example, she said around 50 such people are working on the cause. But she said they were integral to abolition in states like New Jersey and New Mexico, and more have stepped up recently in states including California, Colorado and Montana.
After the Connecticut House approved the bill, nearly a dozen family members who sat through the almost 10 hours of debate gathered to thank lawmakers who helped champion the cause. Some embraced Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, a New Haven Democrat was among the leading proponents.
"There are families that agree with me and that disagree with me and I've talked to both sides," he said. "I think if you're going to have this discussion, you owe it to them to talk about both sides."
Associated Press writer Michael Melia contributed to this report.