Whose Life Is It Anyway?
Steven Hayes has apparently decided that he doesn't want to plead guilty after all. So jury selection has resumed in his capital case. But smoldering just beneath the surface of the cold record in this case is an issue that the court has not yet been forced to address: Who decides whether he lives or dies?
Hayes stands accused of capital felonies and related charges for his role in the kidnap, rape and murder of three members of the Petit family in Cheshire in July
2007. If convicted, he faces the death penalty.
Events in the criminal case have thus far been nothing short of bizarre. During jury selection, Hayes apparently stockpiled psychotropic medications and then swallowed them en masse in a suicide attempt. The state kept him alive, and then placed him under observation to make sure he would not kill himself. For weeks, he was unable to sleep. Communication between he and his lawyers was so poor that his lawyers requested a competency examination. Is Hayes capable of understanding the nature of the proceedings against him and is he capable of assisting in his own defense?
The court held last week that Hayes is competent. But when the trial judge tried to ask Hayes questions, the defendant announced he wanted to plead guilty. At that point, all Hell broke loose. Was Hayes trying to commit suicide by state?
In a capital proceeding, the proof proceeds in a two-step process: A jury must first decide guilt or innocence. If, and only if, a jury finds a defendant guilty does the jury then hear evidence on whether the defendant should be killed. Was Hayes offering to do more than plead guilty?
It is unclear on the face of the cold record in this case. But it is clear that his Public Defender, Tommy Ullman, threatened to withdraw from the case if Hayes plead guilty. Much though I love Ullman, this is simply wrong. It is always the client's right to determine whether or not to plead guilty. By threatening to move to withdraw if the client exercised his right to plead, Ullman arguably signaled to court and client an agenda at variance with the client's desire. I repeat here what I said last week: The court should appoint independent counsel for Hayes to determine just what he wants.
No guilty plea necessarily yields a sentence of death. If Hayes pleads guilty, the trial then moves immediately to the penalty phase. In an odd and paradoxical way, the most powerful mitigating evidence that Hayes may have at his disposal is the decision to plead guilty and accept legal responsibility for the carnage in Cheshire. Did Ullman's hatred of the death penalty blind him to this potential tactical coup?
The real tragedy in this case is the thick-headed determination of the State of Connecticut to kill Hayes. When he tried to kill himself, the state stepped in and saved his life. It then prevented him from attempting to renew his suicide attempt. The state protected the presumption in favor of life. Why? So it could kill Hayes. Why does it want to kill him? Justice requires it. But what if Hayes wants the same justice? Why can't he consent to justice?
Thus the tawdriness of the death penalty is on display once again. The State, our loftiest of abstractions, beholds the pitiless killer and says: "You can't kill yourself; only we can kill you." It is a twisted version of the old saw about a renegade employee who told his boss: "You can't fire me; I quit." Simple petulance is not justice.