Do Affluent Victims Deserve Special Treatment?

I doubt there is a person of goodwill in the state who does not empathize with Dr. William Petit of Cheshire. The man’s family was slaughtered, and he was beaten and left for dead. To look at the family photo of he, his wife and two daughters displayed in news magazines nationwide is to experience something akin to the tearing of a scab from tender flesh. It is no wonder that when Dr. Petit speaks of his loss, people listen.

What causes wonder is that when this wounded man speaks of his rage, his sorrow and his infinite pain, people take what he says quite so seriously. It is as though we’ve become deaf to equity’s distant whisper: No man can be a judge in his own case.

Why is it newsworthy that Dr. Petit wants the men who murdered his wife and daughters dead? Harm my family and I’d want you dead; rage would swell within me and burst the bonds of reason. I can imagine hatred so hot and so vile that I could kill. Dr. Petit’s rage is justifiable and understandable, an emotional truism.

But this rage is not justice. It is the howl of man wounded and pressed beyond endurance. His lonely wail should not be mistaken for a beacon capable of leading us to anything other than shipwreck.

Oh, we dress this raw emotion up and make it sound pretty. Dr. Petit favors the death penalty, we say. But permitting a victim to manipulate, from whatever distance, the levers in a death chamber doesn’t transform private vengeance into public justice.

And now we learn that there is talk of special accommodation for the trials of the two men accused of the murders. Dr. Petit is urging this so as not to be required to endure the horror of two trials. Twice sitting through accounts of this nightmare is more than he can endure.
Again, Dr. Petit’s position is easy to understand. I cannot imagine sitting through even one trial.

Apparently, the Judicial Branch is scurrying to see how we can accommodate Dr. Petit’s desire to try both men at the same time. The problem is, there is no courtroom in the state system big enough to hold two juries seated to simultaneously consider the evidence in two cases tried at once. State officials are reaching out to the federal courts to see if something can be done. Is there a cavern large enough to sit some 30 jurors, two defendants, their counsel, the state and the onlookers who will all want to watch?

Whence comes this new double standard? Why new rules, new procedures, new ways of conducting the grisly business of trying men accused of horrible crimes? In more than 350 years of our state’s history, we’ve not done this. I suspect there is something about Dr. Petit’s professional status that has given this special request for a joint trial legs. He’s one of us, after all. Chaos has crept out of the ghetto and into the home across the street. We are quick to feel the doctor’s pain. Too quick, I say.

Tell me, when the next home invasion occurs and there are three defendants, we will build an even larger courtroom? And what of a crime with four, five or six defendants? What if the victims are poor? Black? Inner city? Uneducated?

The defendants in this case face multiple counts against multiple victims. No court would permit the case against both men to be heard by one jury for fear of jury confusion, the impact of passion, the danger of confusing the issues. So we say we will empanel two juries? What foolishness. Imagine the field day appellate lawyers will have parsing the transcripts of the game of musical juries the trial judge will be forced to play: some evidence will be fit for one jury, and not another; some evidence will be fit for both. There will be enough to argue about forever.

The sad, sad irony is that all this is unnecessary. At least one of the defendants, perhaps both of them, has offered to plead guilty if the state will but agree not to seek death. But Dr. Petit wants them dead, and so do many angry and frightened people. So an unnecessary trial goes forward. And now a new demand. Not two trials, but one, the better to serve the victim.

See what happens when we make the howl of the devastated our standard? It would be a far, far better thing to realize that in this case, Dr. Petit deserves all the love we can muster. He’s been undone by this horror. There is no reason we should be required to join him in his sorrow. Let justice be done the way it has always been done in this state, one trial at a time, in vindication of rights too precious to be entrusted to one brought to reason’s edge by unspeakable horror.

Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.

Comments: (1)

  • I disagree with your statement that the trial is u...
    I disagree with your statement that the trial is unnecessary because they have agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a plea bargain. It is not just Dr. Petit asking for the death penalty. It is the prosecutor. The need for a trial is because the defendants refuse to plead guilty without assurances regarding their lives, not because of the victim.
    If they are guilty, they should plead guilty without such assurances. I don't think it's fair to say that it's the victim's fault that they will not do so.
    Posted on August 10, 2009 at 8:47 am by M.C.

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