I shouldn’t be in any condition to write anything about the Petit family massacre. But I am. I’m working on a new play, a tragedy, and I have found that my mind has begun working in completely new ways. I think about evil – banal evil, sophisticated evil – and I let it in as close to me as it can go. Evil is like a dog sidling up next to me, asking to be petted.
A few days ago, Steven Hayes, one of the perpetrators of a home invasion that turned into a massacre in Cheshire, Connecticut, was sentenced to death. One of the jurors on the case spoke at length about how he personally doesn’t believe that the death penalty works – but that the law was applied justly in the case of Hayes.
It’s a horrifying story, either way you look at it. It was a situation in which nobody had to die – and yet a mother and her two daughters perished, having first gone through extreme terror and suffering. The father, the sole survivor among the victims, lost the people closest to him in the course of a single day. And for what? Fifteen grand? A few strings of pearls? The mind boggles.
I like how after the jury handed down their recommendation of a death sentence, Dr. William Petit talked about how there could be no “closure” in a situation like this. I suppose people do find ways of functioning when dealing with such grief – but the word “closure” may not necessarily apply. The destruction that Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky visited upon the Petit family is so inhuman as to make most words ring hollow after a while. A verbal response to this tragedy feels lacking.
So all of this brings me to other responses to such tragedy, namely to the death penalty.
I am against the death penalty. I don’t believe it works. In a racist, classist criminal INjustice system – the death penalty HAS been used against innocent people. There’s no way around that.
However, I have had to ask myself this question – what would I have done had I been on that jury?
I actually have no way of predicting how I would behave in a situation like that, of course. Thankfully, I have not been in a situation where I am on the jury during a trial where the prosecution shows me an autopsy report that tells me exactly how an 11-year-old girl died while tied to her bed, surrounded by stuffed animals – and how she struggled in her final moments to break free. I haven’t seen pictures of these people’s bodies. I haven’t sat in a courtroom, mere feet away from a grieving husband and father.
Lawyer Norm Pattis has written very eloquently about the Steven Hayes trial, though I don’t know if I necessarily agree with his statement that “twelve innocents responded to killing by themselves becoming killers”. I think it’s a powerful statement, but I ultimately believe that we must look at the actions of these individuals within the context of the system that they were forced, by law, to represent. By all evidence, they struggled with their decision. I believe it is obvious that they tried to reach it by taking a multitude of factors into account. Ultimately, it looks as though they reasoned that they were doing their duty by recommending the death penalty.
I agree with Pattis that the death penalty is barbaric. I believe that it brutalizes our society even further (like Pattis, I believe that it especially brutalizes those who are forced to impose it). Living in Russia now, I’m glad there’s a moratorium on it over here – and I hope it remains in place.
At the same time, I think that our everyday ethics and beliefs don’t apply in every single situation. I think that every once in a while, people are called to lay a genuine and good belief aside, in the case of extraordinary circumstances. And I fully believe that this is what Lenus Gibbs – the juror who has spoken out against the death penalty – did when he nevertheless sentenced Hayes to death.
I’ve thought about this at length, and I believe that just as there are times when the law simply doesn’t apply, there are times when superior ethical standards also fail us. Because we’re human beings and not gods. Because three people died horribly, way, WAY before their time, goddamit.
Killing Steven Hayes (I’m not going to use the gentler word “executing” here – let’s call a spade a spade) won’t bring Jennifer, Michaela and Hayley back. It won’t teach Hayes’ poor children (he has two) anything positive about this world. The tragedy that happened in Connecticut will be given new life when Hayes goes to die at the hands of the state.
Yet I have come to believe that some tragedies are unstoppable. They keep going and going, like seismic waves. And until major changes take place in society, until we learn to face these tragedies as communities of human beings and lend real support to the survivors, we’ll have no choice but to kill people like Steven Hayes. In this context, the death penalty is a reflection of ourselves – of the kind of world we live in.
Also, I fully believe that in these situations, the survivors and relatives of the victims should be given their due. Sometimes, survivors don’t want the death penalty. From what I understand. Dr. William Petit does. It’s his right. It has no legal bearing on the situation, but it’s still his right, and it’s something that I wish to honour in this space.