4/16/2003

by Richard F. Banbury, Esq.

(As Published in The Hartford Courant on March 3, 2003)

On the night of December 15, 1956, the bodies of Edward Kurpiewski and Daniel Janowski, each with gunshot wounds to the head, were discovered in Kurp's Gas Station on Stanley Street in New Britain. Joseph Taborsky and Arthur Culombe, the so-called mad dog killers, were subsequently apprehended and convicted of murdering Kurpiewski and Janowski as part of a robbery and homicide spree which had terrorized the central Connecticut area during the winter of 1956-1957.

Taborsky and Culombe were both sentenced to death. Culombe eventually died in prison. Taborsky was executed by electrocution on May 17, 1960. During the intervening 42 years, no-one has been put to death by the State of Connecticut.

It is fair to ask whether or not Connecticut has a death penalty. Given the public ambivalence concerning capital punishment, we seem to have reached an unwritten moral compromise on this vexing and emotionally-charged issue. Certain defendants are sentenced to death but we don't actually execute them. This paradox at least gives a modicum of comfort to both sides of the capital punishment debate. Those in favor are to some degree reassured when a death sentence is judicially pronounced, while those opposed take solace from the reality that no-one in fact is executed.

There are currently seven men in Connecticut whose death sentences are being held in abeyance by various forms of legal proceedings. Michael Ross, who was initially sentenced to the ultimate sanction on July 6, 1987, at one time attempted to forego all further appeals and requested that his execution be carried out. Even a condemned prisoner, however, does not have the power to expedite his own execution, and Ross has now opted for life over death. Still under a death sentence, Ross remains in prison for a series of kidnappings, rapes and murders of teenage girls in eastern Connecticut between November of 1983 and June of 1984.

There are many arguments against capital punishment, the strongest of which involves the risk of executing an innocent person. Given the wrongful conviction revelations in Illinois, Governor George Ryan recently commuted all pending death sentences in that state. Even those who believe in the state's right to ultimate retribution must logically be sickened by the thought of inflicting such retribution on the wrong person. The death penalty statute in Connecticut should, at the least, be based on a finding of guilt beyond all doubt, with an automatic sentence of life imprisonment for those capital offenders whose guilt has been established by the legal but potentially fallible standard of reasonable doubt.

Every criminal sentence in Connecticut is imposed as a judicial pronouncement on behalf of the citizens of the state. Given the strong opposing opinions concerning the ethics and efficacy of capital punishment, and the current contradiction of death sentences being pronounced but not executed, I propose that the question of whether Connecticut maintains or abolishes punishment by death be put to a statewide referendum.

After Edward Kurpiewski had been murdered in his gas station by Arthur Culombe, Daniel Janowski, unaware of the circumstances, drove up to the pumps with his 18-month-old daughter. Minutes later Joseph Taborsky, having ordered Janowski into the station's bathroom at gunpoint, put two bullets into the left side of his head above the ear. Janowski's infant daughter, left alone in the cold car, grew up without the love and guidance of her dad. It can only be hoped that Taborsky suffered the thought of that tragic image when the switch was pulled. Such a token act of redemption would be particularly appropriate if Joseph Taborsky is the last person ever executed in Connecticut.

Richard Banbury is a lawyer and former prosecutor who lives in Marlborough. He represented Arthur James Davis, a Connecticut prisoner whose death sentence was vacated by the United States Supreme Court on June 29, 1972.

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