No person can be a judge in their own case. That is a venerable maxim at law. But we turn the law on its head when it comes to crime. We empower victims to speak for the state. The result is often the anriest, the most distraught, the most undone person in the room gets to call the shots. That's simply wrong.
Consider Connecticut's recent attempt to abandon the death penalty. Both houses of the General Assembly passed a measure abolishing the death penalty. The measure narrowly passed by a margin of 19-17 in the Senate; there was a more comfortable margin in the House, where the bill passed by a vote of 90-56.
Gov. N. Jodi Rell promised a veto. Late last week, she delivered on her promise. The state cannot tolerate those who commit the most vicious crimes, she said.
Her reasoning is specious. A life sentence without the possibility of parole hardly sounds like toleration. Prison is hard. I've represented people who know there is no hope of release. The walls close in. In time, desperation sets in. Some prisoners become spiritual giants under confinement. Most waste away.
What Rell wants is vengeance. She wants an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. She wants what Dr. William Petit wants.
Connecticut residents were shocked two summers ago to learn that two felons had burst into Dr. Petit's home in the early morning hours of a summer morning. They men are alleged to have raped and murdered Dr. Petit's wife and daughters. The men then set the house aflame, leaving Dr. Petit for dead. I cannot imagine a worse crime.
Dr. Petit lived to talk about the crime and its aftermath. He wants the killers killed. He calls it justice. Apparently, a public relations person is helping him make his case for blood lust. When lawmakers voted for abolition, Dr. Petit called them soft on crime. This poor man, whose suffering rivals that of Job, certainly enjoys the pity of all. But from his great wealth of pain and sorrow sounds no vision of justice or good public policy. He has literally been undone by his sorrows.
I do not doubt that Gov. Rell was moved by Dr. Petit's plea. As the state's top elected official, she no doubt has the right to claim to speak for all of the people. But after 182 lawmakers deliberated long and well on the issue, it is a little hollow for the Governor to stand in to say she better knows the people's will.
What Rell knows is the polls. The economy is a mess. We have no budget for the fiscal year set to begin at month's end. People are losing homes, jobs and a sense of hope for themselves and their family. Gov. Rell took the easy way out. She fed the rage of those undone by fear and looking for a cheap and easy sense of efficacy.
But the fact remains that the ten men on Connecticut's death row aren't going anywhere anytime soon. Several of the cases have lingered for more than a decade. Post-conviction proceedings will take years more to perfect and decide. All at great expense; indeed, at far greater expense than merely locking the defendants up and throwing away the key. Gov. Rell's veto is merely a costly baubble.