Opening Day In Cheshire Trial. A Gag Order For Dr. Petit?

Did Governor N. Jodi Rell deprive Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsy of fair trials for their roles in the 2007 home invasion in Cheshire?

One of the lawyers for Mr. Hayes thinks so, and he has filed a motion to bar imposition of the death penalty in the case in the likely event his client is convicted. Expect Judge Jon Blue to deny the motion with hortatory puffery.

In May, 2009, the Connecticut General Assembly passed a bill abolishing the death penalty. Governor Rell, who at the time was still expected to seek re-election, promised to veto the bill, which she did on June 5, 2009. In a prepared statement to the Secretary of the State accompanying her veto, the governor had this to say:

"The death penalty sends a clear message to those who may contemplate such cold, calculated crimes. We will not tolerate those who have murdered in the most vile, dehumanizing fashion. We should not, will not, abide, those who have killed for the sake of killing; to those [sic] who have taken a precious life and shattered the lives of many more. Dr. William Petit recently quoted Lord Justice Dening, Master of the Rolls of the Court of Appeals in the United Kingdom, who said: ... The truth is that some crimes are so outrageous that society insists on adequate punishment, because the wrong-doer deserves it, irrespective of whether it is a deterrent or not."

I doubt that Dr. Petit, the husband and father of the three women murdered and assaulted in the Cheshire home invasion, looked this up Lord Dening by himself. Odds are his public relations firm did that. The man was a phyisician before his life was destroyed in a horrendous night of violence. Now he is a spokesman for the death penalty. I wonder who is bankrolling the public relations effort here?

“I need to stand up for what is just in society, and I need to stand up for my family personally,” Dr. Petit told The New York Times last week in anticipation of jury selection, which is set to begin today in a New Haven courtroom.

“We’re supposed to have the best judicial system,” Dr. Petit told the New Haven Register, but again noted how long is has taken to begin the trial.

“They keep using bits and pieces of arcane wordsmithing,” he added. “They’re not talking about Jennifer, Hayley and Michaela.”

No one seems to note that when Superior Court judge Richard Damiani imposed a gag order on the parties to prevent pre-trial publicity, the judge forgot, or lacked the nerve, to impose a gag order on Dr. Petit. The conventional wisdom is that the court lacks standing to impose such an order on victims. Why not?, I wonder. We have endowed victims with the right to be heard at all critical stages of a prosecution; many prosecutors now cower lest they offend a victim. The right to be heard has become in far too many cases a right to veto what the prosecution deems reasonable. It used to be that only defense lawyers complained among their peers about unreasonable clients; now prosecutors mumbles about being handcuffed by the rage of insatiable victims.

We have given victims rights, but, significantly, refused to them the responsibilities shared by participants in the process. Dr. Petit has a right to be heard and to scream for blood. Were the defendants' lawyers to take to the airwaves and wonder, aloud, whether Dr. Petit is really a prophet, or whether, tragically, his desire to stand now for his family masks the indescribable guilt of escaping the carnage as his wife and children lay dying in his home, those lawyers might well be held in contempt.

The show trials arising from the Petit murders are unnecessary. The two defendants have offered to plead guilty to life without possibility of parole. But the state won't accept the deal. It wants death, and thus the currency of justice is devalued as we pander to rage.

"[L]egal trials are not like elections, to be won through the use of the meeting hall, the radio, and the newspaper," our Supreme Court once observed. When life is at stake, it is "not requiring too much that [defendants] be tried in an atmosphere undisturbed by so huge a wave of public passion," the Court said in another case. Someone needs to remind Dr. Petit of that.

Trials are "bits and pieces of arcane wordsmithing" only to those whose minds are made up and whose passions leave them with a taste only for the blood of the accused.
Trials are tests we impose on ourselves. Can the rule of law hold amid the worst that we are capable of doing? That is always an open question. Last century lynchings suggested that passions easily overcame the rule of law. Emotions are raw today in New Haven. Sharpshooters will no doubt prowl the courthouse roofs once again on alert for purveyors of street justice.

The trial of Mr. Hayes is a test. It is not a wake for those killed in cold blood, that has already happened, years ago. Neither is the trial therapy for Dr. Petit, that will last a lifetime. The trial is a test of whether we can behave any better than the men who apparently killed without remorse. We can pass this test. In doing so, we will have to learn to accept Dr. Petit's words at face value: He is unstrung by rage, grief and sorrow flowing in part from the brutal murder of his family, and, in part, from survivor's guilt. A just society would show compassion for the man, while not sacrificing the larger goals of justice.

Comments: (2)

  • For the record, it's "Denning", not "Dening". It'...
    For the record, it's "Denning", not "Dening". It's the Court of Appeal (singular), and it's of England and Wales (it has no jurisdiction over Scotland, where appeals go to the Court of Session or the High Court of Justiciary). Also, at the time when Denning was Master of the Rolls, he was known as "Lord", rather than "Lord Justice", because he was a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary (Law Lord), rather than just a justice of the court of appeal (who are known as Lord/Lady Justice).
    Posted on January 20, 2010 at 6:10 am by mrpedant
  • Mr. Pedant:
    Please send a note to Gov. Rell corre...
    Mr. Pedant:
    Please send a note to Gov. Rell correcting her. I simply quoted her letter:
    N. Jody Rell
    210 Capitol Avenue
    Hartford, CT 06106
    Tell her Norm sent you.
    Posted on January 20, 2010 at 6:13 am by Norm Pattis

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