HARTFORD, Connecticut — A public defender urged the Connecticut Supreme Court on Thursday to overturn the death penalty of a man who ordered the 1999 killings of a woman and her 8-year-old son, saying a prosecutor's misconduct and a judge's mistakes warrant a new penalty phase of his trial.
The prosecutor at the trial of Russell Peeler Jr. committed misconduct when he told the jury during closing arguments that nothing but the death penalty would bring justice to the victims' family, Assistant Public Defender Mark Rademacher said. He also said a judge wrongly kept some defense witnesses from testifying.
Senior Assistant State's Attorney Marjorie Allen Dauster denied the defense allegations during the two hours of arguments before all seven justices of the state's highest court, which is expected to take months to issue a decision.
Peeler, 42, was sentenced to death in 2007 for ordering his brother to kill Karen Clarke and her son, Leroy "B.J." Brown, who were shot to death in their Bridgeport home. The boy was expected to testify against Peeler in another murder case — the 1998 killing of Clarke's boyfriend and Peeler's drug-selling rival Rudolph Sneed Jr. In January, Peeler was sentenced to 105 years in prison for Sneed's murder.
In a verdict that shocked prosecutors and the victims' family, Peeler's brother, Adrian Peeler, was acquitted of murder charges but convicted of conspiring to kill Clarke and her son. Adrian Peeler was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
What wasn't argued Thursday was Connecticut's 2012 repeal of the death penalty for future murders only, which is one of the 33 issues in Peeler's appeal. The Supreme Court is weighing the repeal in another murder case, mulling whether it violates the constitutional rights of the 11 men on death row and whether it should apply to them as well.
No members of the families of Peeler and the victims attended the arguments.
Rademacher said one of the top issues in Peeler's appeal is the closing argument during the penalty phase by now-retired prosecutor Jonathan Benedict. Benedict told the jury that since Peeler had already been sentenced to life in prison in a federal drug case, giving him a life sentence in the killings of Clark and her son would "allow him two free murders with no punishment whatsoever."
Rademacher said Benedict's statement violated Peeler's constitutional rights, including the right to due process.
"He told the jurors to just ignore all the evidence ... to ignore the law," Rademacher told the justices. "It's even worse because he is in effect telling the jury, 'What will the people think ... if you give him no punishment whatsoever?'"
Dauster told the court that Benedict's comment was appropriate and did not amount to misconduct, because he was responding to a defense argument involving Peeler's federal sentence.
In a 361-page brief to the court, Rademacher also argued that some key defense witnesses — teachers and guidance counselors at Peeler's children's school — weren't allowed to testify during the penalty phase, and prosecutors rejected three black people for the jury for no reason. Peeler is black.
Five of the 12 jurors who heard the case were black. Dauster said the prosecution objected to the three jurors mentioned by Rademacher because of legitimate, race-neutral reasons including opposition to the death penalty.