Confession is good for the soul, we like to say. Police prey upon this instinct, and, when alone with men and women suspected of crimes, police officers rely upon it. “Get if off your chest,” they say. “It will do you good.” They sit and play at priest, social worker and concerned friend.
Then they turn around and use your words to try to kill you.
No matter how good confession may be for the soul, it wreaks havoc on your bodily prospects. Never forget for a moment that police officers don’t care a whit for your soul. What they want is your body behind bars. They might even want your life.
Just ask Joshua Komisarjevsky.
A stunned courtroom sat in silence yesterday as Komisarjevsky’s confession to police officers was replayed. He described in graphic detail oral sex with 11-year-old Michaela Petit. She didn’t like it at first; then she seemed to, he said. Today the tape will continue. He will describe masturbating on her, and an act of digital anal penetration. When Komisarjevsky had had his pleasure, the girl was tied to her bed. She died hours later from smoke inhalation after her home was set afire by Komisarjevsky and his co-defendant, Steven Hayes. Both men try to blame one another for the crime’s horror.
I got a telephone call from a news reporter last night. The reporter was almost breathless with rage. Komisarjevsky is an animal. A soulless fiend, the reporter said. The paper for which this person reports agreed long ago as an editorial decision not to publish the details of the sexual assault.
The crimes disgust. I am reminded again of the argument advanced by the most civilized prosecutors: If there is going to be a death penalty, it should be reserved for cases such as this.
But the reporter was not enraged by Komisarjevsky.
“Why would anyone want to have this tape played in public?” the reporter asked. “Why not just accept the man’s guilty plea and be done with it? Let him serve life without possibility of parole?”
The reporter was angry at Dr. William Petit, Jr. Why had this father insisted on the death penalty, forcing the state’s hand? “You know the prosecutor better than I do,” the reporter said. The reporter assumed that New Haven State’s Attorney Michael Dearington is seeking death on doctor’s orders. I could hear children in the background as the reporter and I spoke. Yesterday’s testimony struck a powerful nerve.
No one faults Dr. Petit his rage and his desire to see the men who slaughtered his family dead. The crimes retain their capacity to shock four years after the fact. But let’s not call this blood-lust justice. This trial is simply a polite and upper-middle class version of the blood sport that the Hatfield and McCoys made into folklore: Kill my kin, and I’ll kill you. When I read reports last night of the family of a murdered man smiling as Troy Davis was poisoned to death by nameless state officials in Georgia last night my blood went cold. They were happy that a man was killed. That is sick. Always. Even in the Petit case.
When police officers met with Komisarjevsky in the hours after he was captured fleeing from the Petit home they did not meet with him to provide him absolution. They cannot offer that. They cajoled him and coaxed him to speak so that they could transform his words into coffin nails. Today State’s Attorney Dearington is using those nails to pin Komisarjevsky to a gurney so that others can smile as Komisarjevsky is killed.
This is justice, it is said.
The police will deny responsibility for their false expressions of concern for Mr. Komisarjevsky’s soul. “We were merely searching for the truth,” they will say. Strike one for moral accountability. Detach an act from the ends it serves and all is forgiven. That’s the Nuremberg defense; the state official merely following orders.
Mike Dearington is merely following the law, he contends. The legislature created the death penalty. Dearington is but a servant of the law. C’mon on now. That swill’s not fit for a classy barnyard, much less a courtroom. Strike two for moral accountability.
At the end of the trial, the judge will tell the juries that imposition of any sentence is his role: jurors merely fine facts. Strike three for moral accountability.
Each and every actor in this drama participates because they want to be there. The police, the prosecution, judge and jurors are all puppets in this play. All are co-conspirators in a lengthy drama designed and intended to result in the killing of Joshua Komisarjevsky. Anyone who says otherwise can’t withstand a candid look in the mirror.
For years, I regarded Mike Dearington as a friend. Our kids played high school sports together. We rubbed elbows in contexts other than a courtroom. I came to like the man. But I have lost the tender regard I once had for him. He tiptoes at death’s door now not because he is compelled to do so. He chooses to kill. He chooses to kill because at some level this is something he wants to do. Pained though he will pretend to look before the world at large, I suspect he is doing this because he thinks it is the right thing to do, and it gives him pleasure to do the right thing. The sight of a man killing for pleasure turns my stomach. The state should not take pleasure in killing. It is too dangerous, too primitive, an instinct to satisfy in the name of civilization.
I can at least understand Dr. Petit’s rage to kill, even if my friend the reporter cannot. “Why would a father insist on the death penalty knowing his daughter’s memory would be besmirched with this testimony? Why?” the reporter kept asking last night. Because it feels good is the only answer I can muster.
No man should be a judge in his own case, we teach lawyers. This case proves it. Dr. Petit calls rage justice and demands death. It is the primitive call of the wild. We all know the sound of this howl. Dr. Petit says he does not want pity; he wants justice. We all pity Dr. Petit.
But how to explain Dearington’s longing for death in this case? Don’t let the state off the hook in this case. No one is simply doing their job. People are making choices here. Choosing to kill when other choices are available is a moral act, not the act of a moral automaton.
Confession is not good for the soul, at least when confessing to police officers. Confession is a game the police are trained to play. Bare your soul so the state can snatch your body, or your life. Just ask Joshua Komisarjevsky. Better yet, ask Mike Dearington, and then ask him to whom he confesses his sins.
Don’t be surprised when Dearington turns away in disgust from the question. The truth is, he relished his role as killer in this case.