I have never believed that capital punishment is a moral choice. For many people, though, that’s a challenging view to defend, especially in light of cases like the murder of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her teenage daughters in July 2007, for which Steven Hayes was given the death penalty. The case, which continues to be deeply shocking and disturbing, raises difficult questions about the circumstances under which society can put a criminal to death.
Steven Hayes, who the Hartford Courant described as a “career burglar” (having spent his life in and out of prison for burglary), entered the Petit house with another burglar, Joshua Komisarjevsky, on a morning in July and committed a series of horrific crimes. They clubbed Dr. William Petit, on the head with a baseball bat and tied him up in the basement, while at one point sending his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, to the bank to withdraw a large sum of money. During this period, according to testimony, Komisarjevsky sexually assaulted their 11-year-old daughter, Michaela. When they returned from the bank, Hayes raped and strangled Hawke-Petit. The two men then doused Michaela and her sister, 17-year-old Hayley, with gasoline and set the house on fire. The girls died of smoke inhalation. Dr. Petit survived the attack, stumbling out of the basement of the house covered in blood.
Hayes was sentenced to death on six capital counts. Komisarjevsky will go on trial next year, and could also receive the death penalty.
Reading about this crime, let alone writing about it, is deeply upsetting, especially when coupled with Dr. Petit’s testimony upon hearing the verdict earlier today.
“This is a verdict for justice,” Petit said to reporters outside the courthouse. “But I was really thinking of the tremendous loss…I was sad for the loss we have all suffered.” He thanked the jury for doing their job, saying, “I appreciate the fact that there was seven women on the jury. This was a case of sexual predation…I liked to see women stand up for other women.”
Petit’s loss certainly has to be considered, in addition to the extreme trauma that he suffered at the hands of the murderers. But there is significant precedent for families of murder victims who remain against the death penalty, even in the face of this kind of suffering and loss, and many of their tragic yet moving stories have been posted online by Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation. Chris Castillo of Beaumont, TX, whose mother was murdered, writes,
“I believe that money spent to finance death penalty cases could be used to help crime victims with bereavement costs, burial fees and counseling. Also, that money could be spent to solve cold cases, like my mother’s.
I do believe in justice, but I don’t believe in the death penalty. I also believe if one innocent person is put to death at the hand of the state that is one person too many.”
It may seem easy for me to say that the death penalty is immoral in all circumstances – I have never undergone a horrible trauma like Petit’s or Castillo’s, and I hope I never will. But I do believe that to turn death into an instrument of punishment is to validate the violence committed by the murderer, and to turn our government into an instrument of force. This is to say nothing of the expense involved in capital punishment, or our disturbing habit of executing people who may have been innocent. The Petit murder case was unusually horrible, and certainly makes me question, however briefly, my conviction that people are inherently good. But the death penalty is an ethical issue that demands absolutism, and that means that even in these terrible circumstances, killing to punish killing is a morally reprehensible act.
Photo from Flickr.