Twittering Nabobs of Death
It will be many years before a record is fully assembled about what role the media played in creating a death-chamber in the New Haven courtroom that was home to the trial of State v. Steven Hayes. Reporters flocked from around the world to behold the trial. Each seat was packed; television ews crews assembled in the pre-dawn hours so as not to miss a moment.
The hero of this morality play was Dr. William Petit, Jr. His every move was studied, and reported upon, as though he were something other than a man of sorrows, acquainted with unspeakable grief. Did he place his hand to his brow, or sigh, as the testimony was presented?: On your mark, get set, type!, was sthe silent imperative of the scores of press in the courtroom. And in unison fingers pecked across tiny keyboards, each reporter trying to toss 140 characters into the electronic void first; each trying to show just how sensitive they could be about the sorrow and the horror, oh, the sweet horror of it all.
Connecticut is one of the few Northeastern states to retain the death penalty. The trial of Mr. Hayes illustrates why it should be abandoned. This trial was transformed into a silly farce. One the one side, pure goodness, in the form of an uppe-imiddle-clas white male, a physician no less, from a place called Cheshire. His was the sort of life we tell our children to seek. Work hard. Play by the rules. Get ahead.
Until in the dark of night Evil comes a calling. Two hapless ex-convicts stormed into paradise. They raped and killed the doctor's wife, and murdered his two daughters too. The doctor managed, miraculously and perhaps to his everlasting torment, to survive. His survivor's guilt is now buried beneath a call for justice.
So we lined up to watch the show. Witness after witness gave us our fill of horror. This morning, Judge Jon C. Blue gets to ice this delicious cake of revenge. And the cherry atop it all: Dr. WIlliam Petit, Jr., who will get a chance to stand and declare why eyes must be plucked from the skulls of the living to atone for the eyes taken in rage. Ecce Victim! All silent now.
The mother of a black man slain wandered the streets outside of the New Naven courtoom as the Hayes trial took place. "My son matters, too," she told tired newsmen. You see, another trial was taking place in the building. This trial involved the killing of a black boy killed in the backwater of a distressed urban neighborhood. No one cared about this death.
Lawyers for Mr. Hayes have moved for a new trial, claiming that the courtroom was transformed into something other than a palace of justice during trial. When dozens of reporters stare at Dr. Petit and report his every move, does that not infect the character of the proceedings? We all know it does, we just can say quite how. Look at the techies staring zombie-like and frantically into their handheld devices at some coffee shop. They inhabit the twilight of the living dead.
The cold record in this case will not reflect this two-dimensional world. And those who know Judge Blue would not expect him to detect such a thing. He is a border collie of a jurist. Point him in the right direction, and he moves, cheerfully and with the alacrity of a teacher's, pet toward his goal. He is not a bellweather of social intelligence.
Claims about what went down in that courtroom will be perfected at a habeas corpus proceeding years from now. Social psychologists will testify about the power of silent cues, about something called sociometry and how a courtroom was transformed into a shrine. Whether Mr. Hayes will get a new trial then is doubtful. Too many people want him dead. You see, he is not just a killer. Mr. Hayes killed upper-middle-class white folks. He killed the American Dream. That is simply unforgiveable.