Who Deserves Death?


A Reflection on the Death Sentence Handed Down In Connecticut

Most people who support the death penalty agree that it's not a solution to the problem of crime and violence. Rather, they believe that there are certain particularly depraved killers, the so-called “worst of the worst,” who deserve to die.

Recent events in Connecticut illustrate this point. On Monday, Steven Hayes was sentenced to death by a jury following his conviction for the brutal murders of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters, 11-year old Hayley and 17-year-old Michaela, during a burglary of their home in Cheshire, CT.

In the midst of Hayes' death penalty trial, 65% of Connecticut voters polled by Quinnipiac University said they supported the death penalty; and a whopping 76% said they supported the death penalty for Hayes and another defendant in the same case who will stand trial next year.

However, the death penalty as public policy did not receive a ringing endorsement on election day. Connecticut voters elected Dannel P. Malloy as their new governor. Throughout his campaign, Malloy had repeatedly pledged to sign a death penalty repeal bill similar to the one passed by both houses of the state legislature (but vetoed by outgoing Gov. Jodi Rell) in 2009.

No one is immune

The brutal murders in Cheshire, like the Manson murders, the Oklahoma City bombing, serial killings, murders of children, terrorist attacks, the killing of on-duty law enforcement personnel, and others are cited as examples of crimes that cry out for the punishment of death.

I, too, am utterly chilled by accounts of the Petit family murders and am left wondering how any human beings could be so cruel. Unfortunately, human history is replete with accounts of senseless barbarity and violence, including genocide as well as individual atrocities. Where does this violence come from?

Although we know some answers, we seem to lack the collective will to apply remedies. Instead we cling to a reactive approach. It's almost as if we imagine that we have a personal immunity to violence: that it will always be someone else's family that is affected. But what happened to the Petit family tells us that no family?no matter how successful and no matter where they live?is immune.

No simple answers

We live in a world plagued by complex problems with no simple answers. Still, I embrace a simple ethical rule that works for me: killing is wrong except where it might be necessary to prevent an act of violence. In other words, I believe the taking of life can be justified?even required ?if, and only if, it is the only means available to protect innocent life (e.g. self-defense, national defense, the use of lethal force by police).

But taking the life of a human being in retribution or revenge is wrong in my view, even when the person being punished may “deserve” death.

Focusing on what a criminal deserves can lead us astray. For instance, in the case of Steven Hayes and his alleged accomplice, we could make an argument that they deserve more punishment than being put to death by lethal injection. Since their abuse of the victims amounted to torture, maybe we would need to torture them, too, in order to give them the full measure of what they deserve.

But we don't do that. And the reason we don't says less about what the criminals may or may not deserve than it says about us?our need as a society to promote humane values and to discourage cruelty. The last thing we should do is convert ourselves into a mirror image of sadistic murderers.

A flawed system

The history of the death penalty has shown that we have not been successful in limiting its application to the obviously guilty or the worst of the worst. Often, years after a person has been convicted, new information comes to light that almost certainly would have convinced a jury that the defendant's life should be spared.

Steven Hayes, we know, was a victim of child abuse. In many cases, death row inmates have been exonerated by DNA evidence after everyone in the courtroom, including their own lawyers, thought they were guilty. In too many cases the “worst of the worst” label has been stuck on capital defendants who were mentally retarded, mentally ill, brain-damaged, victims of horrendous child abuse, or severely traumatized during military service to their country.

In my experience, the criminal justice system does not lend itself to the wise and just exercise that we all want it to be. Legal strategies in high profile criminal cases bear a disturbing resemblance to political campaigns. I don't know exactly how and where we should draw a line separating people who have done very bad things from those who are the “worst of the worst.” But I do know that our current legal system is not capable of drawing such a line with consistency and fairness.

I oppose the death penalty in all cases, not primarily out of concern for those likely to be executed, but out of consideration for the humanity we all share. Instead of killing the killers, we should apply our energy and resources to preventing killing.

No closure

The grieving husband and father, Dr. William J. Petit, supported the death penalty for Steven Hayes. We can only imagine the depths of his pain. I felt very deeply moved by something he said after the death sentence was handed down: “There’s never closure. There’s a hole. There’s a hole with jagged edges. Over time, the edges may smooth out, but the hole in your heart and the hole in your soul is always there.”

When Steven Hayes’ death sentence was delivered in a Connecticut courtroom, both Dr. Petit and Mr. Hayes got what they said they wanted. Over time, I suspect, one or both of them may come to feel differently.

David Kaczynski is executive director of New Yorkers for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and the brother of Theodore Kaczynski (the “Unabomber”) who is serving a sentence of life without parole in a federal prison.

Photo by Jimmy Emerson via Flickr.

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