Conn. high court hears death penalty appeal

Case brings up privacy concerns

By Dave Collins
Associated Press / April 28, 2011

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HARTFORD — A lawyer told the state Supreme Court yesterday that his client’s death penalty case was the weakest one ever to go before the high court, alleging that the jury was biased and that key evidence was improperly withheld from the trial.

Justices heard the appeal of former Torrington resident Eduardo Santiago, 31, who prosecutors say agreed in 2000 to kill a West Hartford man in exchange for a pink-striped snowmobile with a broken clutch. He was sentenced to death by lethal injection in 2005 after a jury convicted him, despite no clear evidence that he was the one who pulled the rifle trigger.

Two other men are serving life prison sentences for the killing of Joseph Niwinski, 45, who was shot in the head while sleeping in his home.

Santiago’s lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Mark Rademacher, told the Supreme Court that there was no way a reasonable jury could have condemned Santiago. The defense presented 25 mitigating factors, including Santiago’s troubled childhood, for jurors to consider against the death penalty, while the state based its argument for execution on one aggravating factor, that Niwinski was killed in a murder-for-hire plot.

“This is really the least aggravating case that has ever come before this court,’’ Rademacher told the justices, who are expected to take several months to issue a ruling. “The victim in this case did not suffer one iota of pain.’’

Rademacher alleged jurors were biased in favor of the prosecution. Santiago’s appeal says one juror has acknowledged that members of the panel were disappointed that prosecutors had only one aggravating factor and they improperly considered what they thought were other aggravating factors, but ones not listed in state law.

In Connecticut, juries that convict defendants of capital felony must then consider whether to recommend the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of release by deciding whether proven aggravating factors outweigh proven mitigating factors.

Marjorie Allen Dauster, senior assistant state’s attorney, told the court that prosecutors proved the murder-for-hire aggravating factor listed in state law and the jury was right to condemn Santiago. She pointed out that state lawmakers, while debating the death penalty law in 1973, considered murder for hire to be the most heinous capital crime.

Justices spent a good portion of the hearing questioning the lawyers about whether criminal defendants’ rights trump the privacy rights of others.

The issue was raised in part of Santiago’s appeal that accused the trial judge of wrongly refusing to release an entire state Department of Children and Families file on Santiago and his family. While the judge released portions of the file dealing with Santiago, he declined to disclose other parts dealing with his relatives because of privacy concerns.

Rademacher says the records document Santiago’s grim childhood, which included beatings by his mother and stepfather, sexual molestation, and his nine-year journey through foster care, psychiatric hospitals, orphanages, and shelters. Rademacher said releasing the rest of the DCF file could have given the jury more mitigating evidence and a fuller picture of Santiago’s troubled past.