Darkness Before Noon
A rump jury of twelve Connecticut residents carefully screened to exclude any member who opposed the death penalty voted to kill Steven Hayes today. The state went a perfect six for six, winning each and every capital felony count. To those of us who oppose the death penalty, today was a sheer act of barbarism. The state, which cannot give life, has now received permission to take what it cannot give. This is not justice. This is the savagery.
In the end, there was but one hero in this case: The lawyer for Mr. Hayes, Tommy Ullmann. When an angry state lined up and volunteered to kill Hayes, Ullmann stood by his side. He walked his client to the rail of the jury box during closing arguments for jurors to behold the man. I thought in that moment that the spark of human decency would have been kindled and jurors would not kill. I admire the vigor and integrity of Ullmann's defense of his client. Ullmann sought something more than the common denominator of easy fear and rage. That this jury aimed so low is not Ullmann's fault.
But even Ullmann stumbled away from this new killing field talking nonsense. He told the press afterward that his client was actually happy with the verdict. He's been wanting to die; the state will now do this for him. These words are as macabre as the penalty itself. In the end the state and defendant stand staring at one another across a vast divide: Both want death, apparently; but there will be a struggle to see who imposes it. If, as supporters of this verdict contend, this case were about justice and not revenge, we'd stand silently by as Hayes took his own life. But that won't do. We want the satisfaction of watching him die. These are dark impulses that civilization works hard to restrain. We are all savages today, better than Hayes on his killing spree, but now of a similar kind.
The details of the Hayes case are seared now into the mind of all. A home invasion. A mother raped and murdered; a daughter sexually assaulted and murdered; another daughter murdered, and the three burned to death in their home. Only Dr. William Petit, Jr., escaped alive. His is the shattered peace that will know no rest. Not just the rage and loss of a loving family, but something like survivor's guilt will haunt him the rest of his days. He is a Job-like figure.
The verdicts began to be reported shortly before noon this morning, a convenient fact to the world's media, who stood by just aching to describe the indescribable horror of this case. The midday report, the darkness just before noon, was set. Cameras were trained on the family of the slaughtered family, mircophones thrust into the face of man no one would trust to be on this jury, but from whom too many were willing to seek guidance about what was required in this case. We've made a cult of victimhoo, and this victim became the high priest of rites that tap something primeval. Dr. Petit told the press this verdict was not revenge, it was justice. Does anyone really believe it is that simple?
Many states in the United States eschew the death penalty. So does every other democratic nation. We alone kill and call it justice. Other nations with civilizations and cultures far older than our own live just fine without worshipping the executioner's needle. Justice does not require killing. Justice does not require feeding flesh to the behemoth we call the state. How proud now the strut of the prosecution, men who have persuaded jurors to do the unthinkable.
Consider now the moral posture of this case: Mr. Hayes has tried to kill himself, but the state stepped in to save him. Why? There is a presumption in the law against the rationality of suicide. A person cannot take their own life. So we stop him, and restrain him against his will. But for what purpose in this case? Did we save him so that we can accomplish the very goal he cannot have for himself? How much less satisfying his killing if he joins in the desire to die. We feel cheated of the full measure of our desire for vengeance if Mr. Hayes cannot be dragged, full of regret and resistance, to the executionar's chamber. The hiss of the poisonous pumps that will deliver toxins to him will sound less satisfying if the words that precede them are "come sweet death."
This is a macabre dance of death. Those Connecticut residents who oppose the death penalty are justified in being sickened by this maudlin display of power.
I fully sympathize with Dr. Petit and those close to the family who want Hayes dead. I believe I too would want the destruction of those who harmed my loved ones. But this business of being hoodwinked into completing a private act of vengeance in the name of justice sickens. Yes, if there is to be a death penalty, this is the case in which to have it. But who said death was necessary or just? Those voices were kept off the jury. This was a death-qualified jury.
Ironically, even now Mr. Hayes will not permitted to go silently into the night. Expect hearings, appeals, post-relief. Strangers will decide for him the timing of his death. He will sit now in a cell on suicide watch. The jury has sentenced him to die six times, but he cannot accept that verdict and agree to die. We must kill him against his will to enjoy the spectacle. So let's torture him, shall we?, be keeping him alive for a decade or more as appeals run their course. This is spiteful sickness.
The crimes of Steven Hayes were sick and horrifying. So are the verdicts of death returned today. And so, finally, are we. The man offered to plead guilty long ago. He wanted to die. But the law forbids a man to submit to the death penalty. So he fought, and we watched and hung on each gruesome word. Next year we will do it all over again in the case of his co-defendant Joshua Komisarjevsky. This taste for blood we've whetted won't go long without new satisfaction.
Justice wasn't done in New Haven today. The verdict was all but inevitable, but still it was a sick farce. And we loved every minute of it. Plenty of death penalty opponents feel used by this trial. Lawmakers voted to repeal the penalty, but the governor was lobbied to veto the repeal. And then came this trial. In January we can pretend to be revolted all over again when jury selection in the case of Mr. Komisarjevsky begins.