I was in New Haven just as day broke. Much to my surprise, there were few media wagons in front of the courthouse on Church Street. Only one ghastly looking antenna reached into the gray morning sky. All at once it struck me: death is now passe.
It was opening day of jury selection in the case of State v. Komisarjevsky, the co-defendant in the brutal home invasion in Cheshire in 2007. When Stephen Hayes was tried last year, it was standing room only in the courthouse lobby when jury selection began. There was a grim sort of determination by the media to cover the case from beginning to end. Much though we say we hate the horror of it all, we loved every sordid minute of the coverage.
This time around it looks as though there will be less of a feeding frenzy, less of an almost compulsive need to revel in the grimy details of slaughter. I can’t tell whether that is a good thing.
Hannah Arendt once wrote of the banality of evil as she covered the Nazi war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann. Far from being a monster, Eichmann disappointed. He was an ordinary man, after all; an ordinary man who’d done extraordinary horrifying things. Perhaps in the Cheshire cases, we now confront the banality of evil’s antipode, goodness.
There’s a certain weariness associated the name of the surviving victim, Dr. William Peiti, Jr., that is often whispered, and almost never spoken aloud, in courthouses throughout the state. When he turns up at legislative hearings to lobby for one thing and another, no one has the nerve to usher him to the door. Everyone listens, or at least pretends to, with the same studious expression one uses to listen to Aunt Matilda counsel caution at the senior prom. We listen because it is expected, not because we believe auntie dearest brings anything other than a smothering concern to the table.
The Komisarjevsky defense team has already displayed its hand in pre-trial filings: Komisarjevsky was the dupe of the older man. It was Hayes who read all those thrillers about rape and mayhem. Why, Josh was merely in the thrall of the seasoned criminal. Last trial it was Komisarjevsky who played the role of anti-hero: his semi-literate Nietzschean ramblings were entered into evidence by Hayes’ lawyers to show that evil lay in the heart of the younger man. This murders’ version of "Who’s on first?" does not persuade.
Komisarjevsky’s lawyers have filed a motion to compel the state to accept their client’s guilty plea in exchange for not seeking the death penalty. This is a move that would save the state as much as $60,000 per year in the cost of housing Komisarjevsky during the many years of appeals sure to follow. But New Haven State’s Attorney Michael Dearington stumbles along like a principled idiot; he’s tasted blood once, he wants more. After all, if ever there was a case in which death should be sought, this is it, right? Besides, how do you kill Hayes and give Komisarjevsky a pass?
This begs the question: why kill on doctor's orders?
So on this second middle-class show trial goes. We are seeking to kill two men because they laid waste to the American dream. We’re engaged in a political thrill kill all our own. We suspend judgment about the morality and efficacy of the death penalty. Only this time around it feels different. It’s hard to feel anything at all as this trial begins. We know what’s coming. The trial is simply a variation on a by now well-worn theme.
Only this time around even lawmakers are to blame for the sense of torpor. They are prepared to vote to abolish the death penalty, but only prospectively. No one wants to take the heat for giving Hayes or Komisarjevsky a pass. What’s worse, no one is prepared to stand up in the well of a legislative chamber and say what needs saying: No one can be a judge in his own case. Much though we sympathize with Dr. Petit for his loss, he’s banged the bully pulpit long enough. There is no justice in killing; there is only more destruction, not just of the lives that are destroyed, but of a common regard for the civilizing norms that make society possible. We kill because it feels good. And just how does that make us different than the killers we execute?
So we set out again to kill. This time without all the fanfare and fuss. We now go about the work of killing as if in a trance, prepared to abandon the practice, but lacking the courage to say enough is enough to the gaudy melodrama.