Counseling The Killers

Can a good man be a good citizen? The debate is at least as old as Saint Augustine's City of God, written in the fifth century of the Common Era. For one North Haven, Connecticut, resident the debate has come home with a vengeance. Lenus Gibbs voted to kill Steven Hayes, even though he acknowledges that the death penalty doesn't work. Mr. Gibbs told a reporter for the New Haven Register that he broke down and cried the night before voting for death. The decision bothered his conscience.

Mr. Gibbs began the trial an opponent of the death penalty. It sounds as though he ended the trial opposed to state killing. The penalty doesn't work, he told a reporter. So what led him to decide Steven Hayes should die? He followed the law. So a good man opposed to killing voted to kill because the evidence met the requirements for death. In other words, a good man decided it was better to be a good citizen. I suspect this is the sort of conflict that will lead more than one of the 12 folks voting to kill Steven Hayes to take advantage of the free mental-health counseling offered to jurors in the case.

The evidence in the case was graphic and deeply disturbing. There were photographs of burnt corpses, photographs of a child bound to her bed after she had been sexually assaulted, and photographs of bloody gore. Everyman's worst fear, the nighttime rampage by strangers, became reality for those assembled in that courtroom. This murder scene was perhaps the most sadistic yet displayed in a Connecticut courtroom. Much was asked of jurors who were plucked at random, much like the victims, from the security of their homes and then walked to the gates of Hell for a long look into the abyss. Mental health counseling may well be necessary.

But I suspect the counseling will be needed for more that the trauma of having seen so much; it will be needed for having done too much. Twelve innocents responded to killing by themselves becoming killers. This new homicide was long in the planning, and was as cool, calm and deliberate an act as any homicide can be. But let's not forget for a moment that in the moment Michael Dearington decided to seek death for Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisaryevsky, he decided to part ways with those who view those who kill with moral wariness. A considerable number of Connecticut residents oppose the death penalty on principle. Those who refused even to consider killing were given no voice on this jury. They were sent home to watch the trial, while others purported to kill in their name.

Mr. Gibbs was selected to serve because he agreed he would follow the law, despite his private reservations about the death penalty. In this regard, he behaved as a model juror, a person committed to the rule of law. One oath every juror must swear before serving is to follow the law as the judge instructs them. We do not permit jurors to nullify the law. Only a few states in the United States permit jury nullification.

I make my living in a courtroom and I typically review with jurors whether they are prepared to follow the law wherever it leads. Only by making such a commitment, the theory goes, do the parties know they are getting a fair trial. If the lawyers know what rules will be applied, they can present their case in an orderly way. Ad hoc rules made up along the way may well frustrate the purposes of justice, we say. It sounds good in theory. But what if the law is wrong? Only sheep respond blindly.

Mr. Gibbs opposed the death penalty, but decided to impose it because he thought the law required it. I shudder to think of a community of people prepared to abandon fundamental moral principles for the sake of the law. We were men and women long before we were citizens. Following the law wherever it leads is the tyrant's swan song, and this seems never so apparent as when the state seeks to kill a citizen. That is too much power to give to the state; we sheep need not graze in every pasture to which state officials lead us. This is so even if Mr. Hayes was the most dangerous of wolves. We could have corraled him for a lifetime in a prison, a fate that may well await him given the intevitable delays incident to carrying out the homicidal intent of the jury.

I was relieved to read on line of a former criminal defense lawyer named Clare Hogenhauer who spent eight days during the penalty phase of the trial standing silent vigil with signs asking jurors not to seel death. "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind," one of her signs read. I do not recall seeing a picture of her in any of the state's daily newspapers. What I recall each night was seeing pictures of the victims' family. Why the imbalance in coverage? Did the media help create an environment in which it was safe and acceptable to kill? Were reporters better citizens than men and women?

Mr. Gibbs sounds like a good and honorable man. He is a military veterans and knows about sacrifice and dangerous service. Little did he know when he responded to his jury summons, however, just how harrowing this new service would be. He walked away from a personally held commitment to make a pact with strangers. I pity him, even if the press will regard his decision as an act of heroism. 

And when, ever, has it been necessary to offer mental health counseling to folks who did justice? The death penalty brutalizes those who impose it. Ask Mr. Gibbs.

Also listed under: Cheshire Homicide


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