Hope In New Haven
After three full days of deliberations in New Haven, the jury is still out: There is no verdict on whether Steven Hayes shall live or be killed for his role in the 2007 home invasion in Cheshire that left a mother and her two children dead. Most observers thought the decision to kill would be easy. Even death penalty opponents were heard to mutter that if there is to be a death penalty, it should be reserved for cases such as this. Can it be this jury will not sentence Steven Hayes to death?
A decision not to refrain from killing in this case would speak as loudly as Clarence Darrow's successful appeal for the life of Leopold and Loeb in Chicago many years ago, an appeal Darrow lacked the courage to make to a jury, given public passion. If the Hayes jury rejects death in this case, death penalty supporters must pause to consider whether death can ever be called justice.
I do not know Steven Hayes, and the evidence presented by the defense in the penalty phase of this trial did not persuade me that there was anything to like about the man. He was found guilty of 16 of the 17 charges the state brought against him, including six death penalty offenses. (But for an error on the state's part -- it failed to charge Mr. Hayes as an accessory to commit arson -- there is little doubt the state would have scored a clean sweep.)
But the death penalty is as savage as the crimes it seeks to avenge. Transforming 12 jurors into cool, calculating killers is not justice. Asking ordinary citizens to walk with Mr. Hayes on the side of the line separating killers from those who do not kill is not justice. Civilization has been the work of centuries; tamping down the beast within us all is hard, unending work; unleashing blood lust is dangerous. Sure, we have killed in the name of justice for centuries; but it was during those long centuries that we also enslaved fellow human beings. Human standards of decency evolve. The United States is alone among Western democracies in clinging to death as a form of justice. Connecticut can lead the way in the United States by rejecting death for Steven Haves. This jury can make a stand against state-sponsored savagery masquerading as justice. Saying no to death here means looking hatred, passion, disgust in the eye and refusing to descend to the same level of rage that prompted Mr. Hayes to part ways with the world we cherish. It is enough to sentence this man to life without possibility of parole.
Mr. Hayes has already tried once to take his own life. Yet somehow the state thinks it justice to say to a man "You can't kill yourself, we will kill you." If Mr. Hayes chooses no longer to live, I respect that decision. The night he slaughtered a family put him on a lonely path that few will ever share. But the state lacks the power to give life; it certainly ought to lack the authority to take it.
The last time Connecticut killed a man was when Michael Ross, a serial killer, was executed. In the Ross case, he decided after almost two decades of legal wrangling post conviction that he had endured enough. Death appealed to him. He fought his lawyers for the right to die, a right the state ought not to deny anyone. Ross was killed by the state, but only after losing the will to live. Before Ross, the last person to be killed by the state was Joseph "Mad Dog" Taborsky in 1960. We do not kill easily or gratuitously here, as is done in Texas or Florida or others of the nation's death mills. And I am glad of it.
Courtroom observers in the Hayes case have wondered what is taking this jury so long to reach the inevitable result. One wit wonders when the family will get the verdict it "deserves." We do not owe Dr. William Petit, Jr., the sole survivor of the home invasion, or any member of his family, a death: the suggestion that we do is obscene. Indeed, the almost palpable sense of entitlement asserted on behalf of Dr. Petit by supporters and a press corps may well be a potent factor in pushing this jury away from the needle. We say that no man can be a judge in his own case, yet in this case, we've almost permitted the scales of justice to serve a private need for vengeance. Killing is not justice.
It is premature to declare a victory for civilization. But after three days of deliberations, three days in which the court itself did all it could to foster a quick verdict by compelling jurors to sit through the weekend, a move unprecendented in cases involving death or any other controversy for decades, there is reason for guarded optimism.
The Sun sets in New England today with but one man convicted of taking lives in the Cheshire home invasion. There is little doubt about the fact that another man will soon be convicted. Mr. Hayes' co-defendant has boasted of his role in the rampage in prison diaries. But tonight there aren't 12 new killers among us. That is a cause for celebration, and, I hope, for reflection among those clamoring for more blood in this case. The death watch continues in New Haven.
I remain hopeful that this jury will return a verdict against state-killing. Not because I care a whit about Steven Hayes. The man horrifies. But what horrifies me more is a state that seeks to kill in my name. I would not be permitted to serve on this jury because of my opposition to the death penalty. Yet prosecutors strut and preen and pretend that we all want blood spilled here. We do not. The death penalty is vestigial barbarism, or the howl of a wound that no court can heal, and nothing more.