This spring, the Connecticut Supreme Court will decide a novel issue in all of modern death penalty jurisprudence. The issue is this: Can a state gradually abolish its death penalty, that is, can it leave in place the sentences of those currently on death row but abolish the death penalty going forward? This Article argues that it can. As a matter of statutory construction, “prospective-only” repeals of death penalty legislation are construed as such. Although constitutional questions are admittedly less straightforward, prospective-only repeal does not offend either the Eighth or Fourteenth Amendments. The death penalty remains constitutional per se under the Eight Amendment, and “as applied” challenges under Atkins and Furman fare no better. Under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses, rational reasons abound for abolishing the death penalty while maintaining death row intact.
Apart from the thorny legal question before the Connecticut Supreme Court, prospective-only repeal gives rise to two other difficult questions. The first is a pragmatic one: From the perspective of the abolition movement, is it wise to abolish prospective-only? The second is a moral one: Is it right to tell those who committed murder on Day 1 that they must remain on death row, while eliminating the death penalty for those who commit murder on Day 2? This Article answers both questions in the affirmative. Prospective-only death penalty repeal promises both retraction of the death penalty and preservation of the status quo and is therefore a useful tool for winning states with inmates on death row to the cause of abolition. Furthermore, by retaining the death penalty for some so that no others will ever face a similar fate, legislators transform an immoral punishment into an arguably moral sacrifice. This is the uneasy morality of gradual abolition; from wolves, lambs.