I cannot fathom the grief of Dr. William Petit. I hope never to know such pain. And I pray that if I am ever undone by evil my neighbors will have the good sense to leave me in peace and not make me into a veritable rock star of rage.
Those of you not from Connecticut may not recognize the name, but you may well find his story familiar. In July 2007. two men burst into the doctor's home, beating him senseless and then killing his wife and two young daughters after sexually assaulting at least one of them. The men set the house afire. Dr. Petit, somehow, stumbled to safety.
Jury selection starts this week in the trial of one of the defendants, Steven Hayes. His co-defendant, Joshua Komisarjevsky, will go to trial next year. The trials are unnecessary as both men have already offered to plead guilty. They ask only that in exchange for their plea, the state not seek the death penalty.
The state has rejected this offer, and no judge can compel the state to accept the plea. So the machinery of death has been oiled, removed from its storage shed, and lurched into a New Haven courthouse. We do not kill with the ease of a Texan in Connecticut. The death penalty is rarely sought, and even more rarely applied. New Haven almost never seeks to kill; I cannot recall the last time the prosecution obtained a verdict calling for death.
Why the death penalty in this case?
In part, the public is outraged. Mssrs. Hayes and Komisarjevsky did not take out a family on food stamps, huddling in some desolate swamp of a housing project. No, these two defendants reached across the great socioeconomic divide and struck prosperous members of the upper middle class in a largely white and affluent suburban community. And it helps that the victims were photogenic. Their photograph has been in news magazines throughout the United States.
This prosecution is a revenge killing. The underclass we incarcerate, impoverish and seek to control with ever harsher penalties struck. We are reacting to these murders as though they were a slave rebellion. To keep order, we must be equally savage. Kill these monsters. Nothing less will do.
And we have abandoned reasoned judgment to proponents of victim's rights. We have lost sight of an elemental truth: No one can be a judge in his own case. We have professional law enforcement, courts, judges and juries to avoid the vendetta. However, the victim's rights movement has transformed the cost-effective pursuit of the public good into the grief-struck pursuit of vengeance. Dr. Petit wants these men dead? Then so be it!
This is silly, and demeaning. If the man is not unstrung by his sorrow, he should be. He should be wearing sack cloth and ash, not attempting to hijack a judicial robe.
A good friend sent me an email this week after the local media announced that Dr. Petit plans to be, as a newspaper put it, "the face of the victims" at trial.
"It is a wonder he can show his face," my friend said. "I cannot imagine how I could live with myself if I left my wife and kids in a burning house to die. I cannot imagine his guilt."
I had not thought about this perspective on Dr. Petit once in the years since the July 2007 home invasion. All I could think of was his loss. He had been beaten nearly to death; that he stumbled out of the house at all seems a miracle to me, a miracle for which I gave thanks, even if I sometimes wonder whether survival is a haunted curse in this case. But suppose, for a moment, that something like survivor's guilt is one factor inspiring the doctor to seek death here. Does sound public policy require a public trial to work out this private psychodrama?
The trial of Mssrs. Hayes and Komisarjevsky will costs millions of dollars more than simply confining the men for the rest of their lives. The case for the state seems strong. Convictions appear likely. The real trial begins, many months from now, in the penalty phase, where a jury is asked to make a reasoned moral response to the character of the defendants and the nature of the crimes. The state may not succeed in killing these men. It will spend millions of dollars trying.
But if more blood is drawn, what is accomplished? Killing these men teaches us nothing, and deters no one. It simply feels good. For a moment we can become just like the men we kill, sated with rage and lust we can take satisfaction in watching the life force in these men ebb. This twisted satisfaction is the law of the jungle, not justice. And as good as it may feel to Dr. Petit to have this fantasy of revenge enacted on a public stage, it demeans the rest of us.
New Haven State's Attorney Michael Dearington has no stomach for the death penalty. Does he feel he has no choice here but to seek to kill? Nothing in the law deprives him of a choice. All the law requires is that he heed the desire of the victim's representative. Victims have a right to be heard. Period. The wail of the grief struck is not the calm voice of reason. Have we become so tone deaf that we cannot distinguish reason from rage?
Let Dr. Petit howl all he likes for death. Let us join in unison in a sympathetic lament about the ubiquity of evil even amid our affluence. But in the end, let's stop making a rock star of a man brought low by the savage acts of others. There's still time for the state to accept the guilty pleas and to put an end to this despicable passion play. There is still time for justice to be done.