Mom of slain East Lyme woman wants life for domestic violence killings

Mar. 13—Heather Rodriguez, the mother of a murdered East Lyme woman, pleaded with state legislators Monday to pass a proposed law that, if in effect, could have sent her daughter's killer to prison for life.

"Unfortunately, it seems Connecticut courts and lawmakers are more concerned about the rights of the convicted killers than the rights of victims," Rodriguez, at one point in tears, said in her testimony before members of the state's Judiciary Committee on Monday.

Rodriguez's daughter, 25-year-old Corina Zukowski, a pregnant mother of three, was stabbed to death by her boyfriend Avery Hallbrooks of Bronx, N.Y, at an East Lyme hotel in 2018. She was killed for trying to leave the abusive relationship with Hallbrooks, family and friends said.

The proposed bill in question, HB 6682, would include domestic or "family violence" killings among the crimes in Connecticut called murder with special circumstances. The charge used to be called a capital felony and carried the possibility of the death penalty before the state abolished the punishment in 2012.

Murder with special circumstances now carries a life sentence in prison without the possibility of release. It is the harshest penalty allowed by Connecticut law and reserved for eight special circumstances such as the killing of a police officer or child. Murder in Connecticut is punishable by between 25 and 60 years in prison. Life in prison in Connecticut is equal to 60 years.

Hallbrooks is serving a 40-year prison sentence, the results of a plea agreement in New London Superior Court that Rodriguez and family members said fell short of the family's expectations and not in line with the family's lifetime of suffering because of their loss.

"We've been basically given a life sentence," Rodriguez said.

At one point during pre-trial negotiations, Hallbrooks was offered a 48-year prison sentence with the right to argue for less in exchange for his guilty plea to murder. When he rejected the offer, Hallbrooks was warned that he could face 84 years in prison if state prosecutors decided to additionally charge him with assault resulting in death of an infant — Zukowski's unborn child.

Rodriguez delivered her emotional testimony Monday seated alongside State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, who co-sponsored the bill.

"Connecticut saw 12 cases of intimate partner murder last year, four in New London County alone," Cheeseman testified. "And this would apply not just to intimate partner crime but family violence crime. What greater betrayal do we face as human beings than to have loved ones who are supposed to embrace us and treasure us and be there for us be the ones who take our lives away."

The proposal has garnered support from organizations such as the Connecticut Coalition against Domestic Violence and New London-based Safe Futures.

Others that submitted testimony included the family of Emily Todd of Bethel, who was 25 when in 2018 she was shot and killed in Bridgeport by Brandon Roberts, a man she was dating for three weeks but had broken up with. Her family unsuccessfully fought for passage of similar law during the last legislative session.

Todd's aunt, Carrie Delaney, submitted testimony recalling Roberts' murder trial, where he was sentenced to 65 years in prison.

"The statement that will haunt me the most is when Brandon Roberts said he couldn't 'just pistol whip her' (referring to my niece), implying that she would eventually wake up and implicate him for all of the crimes he had committed," Delaney wrote. "He chose to silence Emily forever and put a bullet in the back of her head. Protecting himself and his secrets were more important to him. I believe that if this monster knew he would spend the rest of his life in jail with no chance of parole for ending Emily's life he would have made very different decisions that night and my niece would still be here."

The bill does have some opponents.

The Office of the Chief Public Defender called the proposed bill "vague and overbroad" with the potential for unintended consequences. For instance, Deborah Del Prete Sullivan, legal counsel for the Office of the Chief Public Defender, said that language of the proposed bill could subject an abused victim who murders their abuser to life in prison without the possibility of release.

The bill is co-sponsored by State Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-90th District, a ranking member of the Judiciary Committee. The committee will now decide whether to send the bill on to the full legislature for consideration.

HB 6682 is one of several proposed bills aimed at protecting victims of domestic violence that received a public hearing on Monday. One proposal would establish a domestic violence criminal justice response and enhancement advisory council. Another proposed bill would prevent the Board of Pardons and Parole from issuing pardons to applicants when the conviction came with a standing criminal protective order that is in effect at the time of the application.