February 22, 2011
For opponents of the death penalty, the timing probably couldn't be worse.
One of the two men accused in one the most heinous crimes in state history, the murders of three members of the Petit family in Cheshire, has been convicted and the other is about to stand trial. Dr. William Petit Jr., the one family member to survive the attack, wants the state to put the two to death. The whole state bleeds for this fine man. Who could disagree with him?
Other people who have walked in his shoes and would dearly like to spare him more pain.
More than two dozen family members of murder victims came to the Capitol complex recently to support a bill that would repeal the death penalty, and 76 relatives signed a letter backing the bill. As they have learned through hard experience, the death penalty is a cruel and costly hoax. Perpetrators are entitled to extensive review and appeal, processes that takes decades. Of the now 10 men on death row, the one closest to lethal injection is Sedrick "Ricky" Cobb. He was sentenced in 1991 for murder and is not yet halfway through the lengthy legal process.
As the glacially slow process unfolds, the agony of the crime is revisited on the families of victims as they trudge back to court over and over. There is no healing or closure.
"The death penalty ensnares people in the criminal justice system where mandatory appeals, constitutional challenges and never-ending media attention result in notoriety for the murderer and years of suffering and uncertainty for the families left behind,'' said Gail Canzano, a clinical psychologist from West Hartford, whose brother-in-law was murdered in Hartford in 1999.
There is no real way to fix this. There must be a significant level of review in death penalty convictions, lest society make an irreversible mistake. Scores of innocent prisoners have been released from death row across the country since the death penalty was revived in the 1970s, and apparently a few were executed. Connecticut's only execution in the last half-century was the lethal injection of serial killer Michael Ross on May 13, 2005, 21 years after his arrest. Mr. Ross had not exhausted all his appeals, but waived them and repeatedly asked to be executed.
In other words, the only death resulting from the state's modern death penalty was a form of assisted suicide.
Problems With The Penalty
It is wrong for the state to take a life. It is also hugely wasteful to spend millions of dollars on a system that doesn't work. Courant columnist Dan Haar estimated that Connecticut taxpayers have spent somewhere between $5 million and $10 million a year to maintain the death penalty.
New Jersey conducted a study of the death penalty prior to abolishing it in 2007. The study found there was "no compelling evidence that the … death penalty rationally serves a legitimate penological intent." It also found that the costs of the death penalty were higher than the costs of life in prison without parole.
Finally, the New Jersey study found that "life imprisonment in a maximum security institution without the possibility of parole would sufficiently ensure public safety and address other legitimate social and penological interests, including the interests of the families of murder victims."
Connecticut's repeal bill, submitted by state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield of New Haven, is written as a prospective measure, which means it will apply to those convicted after its effective date.
So if the second Cheshire accused, Joshua Komisarjevsky, is convicted, as Steven Hayes was, both will be subject to the death penalty. But as Gail Canzano said, the two "have decades of appeals ahead of them and it's unlikely either of the murderers will ever be executed." For this, she said, "the entire state watched as the family suffered in the courtroom, reliving the events through bloody photographs and horrifying details."
It isn't worth it.
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