NEW HAVEN, Conn., May 26 (UPI) -- Connecticut's Supreme Court ruled Thursday that capital punishment is unconstitutional, upholding the state's ban imposed four years ago.
In a 5-2 ruling in State v. Peeler, the state's high court determined that two death sentences imposed on convicted killer Russell Peeler are unconstitutional.
Peeler killed a young mother and her child in 1999. On appeal of his death sentence, the high court ruled in his favor citing State v. Santiago, a similar appeal that was granted last summer.
"A majority of this court concluded that executing offenders who committed capital crimes ... would offend the Connecticut constitution," the justices wrote Thursday. "Our conclusion [is] that the defendant's death sentences must be vacated as unconstitutional in light of Santiago."
In Santiago, the high court agreed with the death row inmate that capital punishment "would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment" and that it "no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency in Connecticut."
In making the ruling, the Connecticut Supreme Court upheld the legislature's banning of capital punishment in the state four years ago.
The difference between the votes in Peeler and Santiago is Chief Justice Chase Rogers, who ruled against barring executions last year but changed her mind Thursday.
"My personal beliefs cannot drive my decision-making," she wrote. "I feel bound by the doctrine of stare decisis in this case for one simple reason -- my respect for the rule of law."
"To reverse an important constitutional issue within a period of less than one year solely because of a change in justices on the panel that is charged with deciding the issue, in my opinion, would raise legitimate concerns by the people we serve about the court's integrity and the rule of law in the state of Connecticut," she continued.
The state Supreme Court's ruling means no future criminals can be put to death for any reason, except if the law is changed, but all death row inmates sentenced before capital punishment was barred in 2012 will still be executed.
"Those currently serving on death row will serve the rest of their life in prison with no possibility of ever obtaining freedom," Connecticut Gov. Daniel Malloy responded Thursday. "Our focus today should not be on those currently sitting on death row, but with their victims and those surviving family members."
"The Division of Criminal Justice and I extend our deepest sympathy and condolences to the victims of these crimes and to their families," Chief State's Attorney Kevin T. Kane said in a statement. "I also wish to express my appreciation to the dedicated professionals in the Division of Criminal Justice who have devoted so much of themselves throughout this process."
The United States issued a total moratorium on capital punishment between 1967 and 1977. After its revival, though, several states have passed laws banning the practice. Capital punishment is illegal in 19 states and Washington, D.C., but legal in 31 other states.