This past week, the repeal of the death penalty was jettisoned by the misguided but sincere hope of a few lawmakers that they could ease the pain of Dr. William Petit, whose wife and daughters were slain in a home invasion.
But what is an appropriate response to the anguished pleas of someone in the throes of homicide grief? Someone reeling from unimaginable trauma?
As a clinical psychologist I ask this question every day in my work with victims of trauma. I also ask it as someone who has been there.
That is the way the legal system is supposed to work. The death penalty does not work this way.
Despite our best intentions, the death penalty throws fuel on the already raging fires of a family's trauma and pain through a decades-long battle for justice in which every single court appearance re-traumatizes the family. Because death is irreversible, every issue is litigated and re-litigated – and with good reason because mistakes can't be undone once the sentence is carried out. The perpetrator becomes famous while the families left behind must suffer years of uncertainty.
And all of this for a false promise, because in the end we execute almost no one in this state.
Our lawmakers know this. That is why they were ready to repeal the death penalty and end the charade once and for all.
So what did this one-year delay do for us? My heart goes out to Dr. Petit. He believed that waiting another year would make the pending trial in his family's gruesome murder case a little easier. And I hope, for his sake, that it does. But I know that it won't.
This delay only puts off the inevitable. Believe me, when a death sentence is handed down in the Cheshire case, the cruelties of our legal system will have only just begun. Connecticut has executed only one man in nearly 50 years, and he had to fight with the state to carry out his wish to be executed. We have people on death row who have been there for more than 20 years with no execution in sight. This case will be no exception.
Our legislators need to be honest about this with the people of Connecticut. From a professional standpoint, I can assure you that the death penalty is nothing but harmful to the families of murder victims. It is a cruel hoax that accomplishes nothing. It wastes millions of dollars and it further victimizes families who are already broken with grief.
If we have any real empathy for the families of murder victims, we'll stop putting them through this. We'll see to it that we replace capital punishment with life in prison and no possibility of release. We need to give families of murder victims' real justice — not an empty promise — and the tools they need to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of tragedy. That is what Connecticut should be about.
Gail Canzano is a psychologist in West Hartford.