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Ten Minutes with Stephen Saloom

A leading death-penalty opponent



Stephen Saloom is a strategic advisor for the Eighth Amendment Project, which supports efforts to abolish the death penalty. Previously he was with the Innocence Project, whose mission is to exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing. A lover of jazz, blues, India pale ales, and all things New Orleans, he lives in Ridgefield with wife Deena and daughter Ruby. 

Why is it called the Eighth Amendment Project? We believe the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Why do we have the death penalty? People feel the impulse for vengeance. It makes sense to kill people who’ve killed others. 

What is wrong with the death penalty? The way it is actually carried out. We don’t execute the worst of the worst. We execute the weakest of the weak. As Justice Ginsburg said, Anyone with enough resources can avoid execution.

What about a clear-cut case—a murderer is captured on video and he confesses? That’s the situation people are most comfortable with—clear and irrefutable evidence. But once you enable the death penalty, you don’t get to pick and choose—it’s applied to more than just those cases. Each criminal-justice system works with different rules and great discretion.

Are there prosecutors who would put innocent people to death?  Yes. There are cases of prosecutors who knowingly hid evidence that would have revealed someone’s innocence on death row. I just met with John Thompson, who spent 14 years on death row because a prosecutor did just that.

What is the current law in Connecticut? This summer, the State Supreme Court found the death penalty unconstitutional.

What about the guys who murdered the Petit family in 2007. Weren’t they sentenced to death? They will not be executed. They will spend the rest of their lives in jail.

Are we at a major turning point on this issue? Absolutely. Within the last decade, seven states have abolished the death penalty. Most recently Nebraska abolished it—it’s a very conservative state. 

Why the change?  We have learned about DNA, which has freed a lot of people. Forty years of trying to make the death penalty work, it has failed in every measure. 

Will the US Supreme Court rule the death penalty unconstitutional? Well, Justice Scalia in September suggested that the Court may soon find it unconstitutional. He said there are already four votes. That’s pretty amazing.

You have a fifth grader at Branchville Elementary. Do you talk to her about this topic? All the time. She understands that people kill people, and that people get executed—and that there are problems with the system.

Why are you in Ridgefield? When Ruby was born, we wanted to live near her grandparents. My parents live in Brookfield and my wife Deena is from Wilton. Ridgefield has excellent schools and interesting people. 

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