HARTFORD, Conn. — Former Waterbury State's Attorney John Connelly, a tough-minded and sometimes controversial prosecutor who won death sentences against four of the 11 men on Connecticut's death row, has died. He was 63.
Connelly died Sunday in South Carolina, where he and his wife had moved last year to be closer to their adult children after he resigned from office while fighting colon cancer, friends and a spokesman for the chief state's attorney's office said Monday.
Connelly was the Waterbury area's top prosecutor from 1984 to 2011, a span that included a six-month stint as the state's public safety commissioner. He grew up in Waterbury and served in the Navy from 1967 to 1971 in the Philippines and the West Coast before earning degrees from Trinity College and the University of Connecticut Law School.
He was an assistant state's attorney in Waterbury from 1980 to 1983, then took a job as a federal prosecutor before being named Waterbury state's attorney by Democratic Gov. William A. O'Neill in 1984.
Longtime friends said Connelly was tough on people who committed murder but was willing to give people in less serious cases a second chance.
"He had a big heart and he understood people made mistakes," said Waterbury Mayor Neil O'Leary, the city's former police chief. "But if you were going to take someone's life ... then you were going to have a problem with John. He was pretty determined."
Connelly went to major crime scenes at any hour to oversee investigations and earned the respect of the law enforcement community, O'Leary said.
But he also faced criticism from defense lawyers and the state Supreme Court over his prosecutorial tactics. And at the end of his career, federal investigators were looking into Connelly's ties with Waterbury lawyer and childhood friend Martin Minella and whether Connelly gave preferential treatment to Minella. No charges were ever filed.
In 2003, Supreme Court justices blasted Connelly's closing arguments in the 1999 penalty phase of the trial of Todd Rizzo, who killed a 13-year-old boy with a sledgehammer and now sits on death row. The court said Connelly's arguments were improper and a violation of Rizzo's due process rights, and it criticized him for repeatedly using the word "bull."
"The use by the state's attorney of this expletive in final argument in a death penalty proceeding was not only unworthy of his high office; it had more sinister effects," the court wrote. "It appealed to the jurors' emotion of disdain, by conveying to them the state's attorney's own feeling of disdain for the defendant's arguments."
Also in 2003, then-Justice Joette Katz wrote an opinion questioning Connelly's tactics in the case of Richard Reynolds, who was sentenced to death for killing Waterbury police Officer Walter Williams. Katz also said Connelly played to jurors' emotions.
During courtroom arguments, Connelly referred to autopsy photos as the "Williams family album," frequently referred to the pain suffered by the victim's family and told jurors they had taken an oath, as he did, to uphold the law. The court upheld Reynolds' death sentence, but Katz scolded Connelly in a dissenting opinion.
"Government counsel, employing such tactics, are the kind who, eager to win victories, will gladly pay the small price of a ritualistic verbal spanking," Katz wrote, saying Connelly was "not new" to misconduct.
And in 1999, three Supreme Court justices said in a dissenting opinion that they believed race played a role when Sedrick Cobb, who is black, was sentenced to death for the 1989 rape and murder of a Waterbury woman. Connelly prosecuted that case. The court upheld Cobb's death sentence 4-3.
"The rush to snuff out the life of the defendant will only deepen African-Americans' perception of racism in this court, in the judicial system and in society," wrote then-Justice Robert Berdon.
Connelly's pursuit of the death penalty in the Waterbury area — he put more men on death row than any other state prosecutor — is an issue being appealed by death row inmates who allege there are racial and geographic biases in how state prosecutors pursue capital punishment. The claims are now on trial in Rockville Superior Court.
Connelly also showed a compassionate side.
After Thomas Meyer of Roxbury was charged with manslaughter in 2006 in the assisted suicide of his terminally ill, 97-year-old mother, Connelly offered Meyer a plea bargain calling for probation and community service. Meyer took the deal.
"Clearly, the state's position in this case is Mr. Meyer is not a bad person," Connelly said at the time.
Minella, who grew up with Connelly in Waterbury, said Connelly was a "hard-nosed" prosecutor and strong advocate for victims and their families.
"He was one of the toughest prosecutors you had to deal with. Uncompromising," Minella said. "If he felt your client deserved the maximum, that's what he was going to get."