Death Penalty: No Justice In Rage
(Dean Rohrer illustration)
Let's make no mistake: The slaughter of members of Dr. William Petit Jr.'s family in their home four years ago was a dark and despicable act. A jury has already condemned one of the assailants, Steven Hayes, to death. A different jury will now decide whether Joshua Komisarjevsky should also die.
What are we really seeking to accomplish with the killing of these men?
The legislature was set to vote on abolition of the death penalty this spring, as the jury was being selected in Mr. Komisarjevsky's case. Sen. Prague was expected to vote for abolition. Connecticut would have joined all New England states but New Hampshire in abandoning state sponsored killing as a form of justice.
Dr. Petit, the sole survivor of the home invasion, then paid a visit to the senator. Remarkably, she sat with him, listened to what he had to say and came out swinging the executioner's rope.
An ancient maxim in the law holds that no person can be a judge in their own case. We recognize that folks can be rubbed raw by their losses. Justice requires a calm and steady hand. Thus the state has assumed the role of prosecutor, deciding whether and when to prosecute a person for a crime. We substitute the role of professional for that of aggrieved victim — we let reason work where passions are too easily stirred.
So why did lawmakers back down from a vote abolishing the death penalty?
It was not because the death penalty deters crime. There is no evidence for that. The United States is one of the few industrialized nations that kills those who break the law. Almost every other country regards the practice as barbaric.
We kill because it makes us feel good. But the feelings it taps are sentiments we should fear. When state senators boast about their longing to see a man hung by his genitalia in public we should shudder. But Sen. Prague stood by her remarks when challenged. She enjoyed her sense of outrage.
What in the world did Dr. Petit say to her in their private meeting?
I am frequently asked in a somewhat triumphant tone by those favoring the death penalty how I would react if it were my family that were killed. Would I still be vocal against the death penalty? Would I still rail against a state that takes from its citizens what it cannot give — life? Those asking smile as though they are the cat catching a devious mouse.
"Of course not," I reply. "Kill my family and I will want you dead." I would be wild with rage. I would expect no one to trust me with deciding what justice requires. I could not be a judge in my own case. No one can.
We yield too easily to rage in the Cheshire cases. This murder in paradise mocks us all. Work hard, buy a home in the suburbs, educate your children, love your wife. Do all these things, and all that is good and true and beautiful shall be yours. Cheshire is the new Eden.
When Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky rampaged through the Petit home, they stole that dream from us all. Our restraint was mocked.
Sigmund Freud observed that civilization depends on harnessing the darker impulses. We repress aggression and rage to meet a higher vision of what is required to live together in peace. But civilization comes at a cost. Always and forever, we do the hard work of keeping the beast within chained.
But not in the Cheshire case. This time we're yielding to a self-indulgent bit of savagery that has senators calling for bodies swinging from lamp posts on Main Street. Can it be?
The death penalty is savage. Edith Prague proves it. One meeting with a man undone by violent death and this gentle woman howls at the moon. That so many of you reading this piece agree with her both proves my point and terrifies me.
Norman A. Pattis is a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer in Bethany.