Steven Hayes: is the “I’m against the death penalty, but…” discussion appropriate here?

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.

So.

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.

One thought on “Steven Hayes: is the “I’m against the death penalty, but…” discussion appropriate here?

  1. I agree with the courts’ decision in Stephen Hayes’ case. This act was humanity at its most vile. There was irrefutable proof of what happened, and Hayes showed no remorse.

    Unfortunately, homicide cases aren’t usually this uncomplicated. Too many innocent people ARE executed. And even when the murderer is guilty, there are other factors to consider. How brutal was the killing? Was it an act of self defense? Are there any mental health or disability issues to consider? How reliable was the testimony of the co-accused who bought his/her freedom by ratting? Is the killer sorry? Will he/she kill again?

    Take this example, from Texas: Joseph Stanley Faulder is alleged to have participated in a brutal home invasion in 1975(?). But the crime involved a biker chick. Now anybody who’s read as much Yves Lavigne as I have knows that NOBODY rats off the bikers and lives. So right away, his confession looks suspicious. Add to that the fact that all charges against the biker chick, the person that talked him into his alleged participation in the crime in the first place were dropped in exchange for her statements against him. Faulder’s mother also testified that he suffered from a head injury when he was a child. Imo, he should receive psychiatric treatment. Maybe not freedom, but he should be allowed to live, because we’re not 100% certain that he was the one who actually killed the woman.

    How about Canadian Ronald Smith, on death row in Montana? He shot his 2 cousins who were hitchhiking with him in 1982. A pretty violent act against family members, yes. But they died quickly, no torture in this case. The media also hasn’t given us all of the whys. Were they drinking? Did the cousins do something stupid to make a third drunk think he needed to defend himself? All we know of this case is that the killer expressed such remorse that he felt compelled to ask for the death penalty, and then changed his mind. I think our gvt was right to step in here. At the very least, the courts need to re-examine the facts of the case.

    Ted Bundy got what he deserved. I was however, a little dismayed by the creepy clown costumes and the people who brought weenies to roast over his smouldering remains while they sang a tribute to “Old Smokey”, the electric chair, to the tune of the old campfire song. No, just no. THAT was almost as shameful as what Bundy did.

    Paul Bernardo is one of the biggest reasons I don’t call myself a Xtian. What kind of god makes a foul human being like that AND makes him good looking and intelligent enough to nearly get away with what he did? And the taxpayers whine about a bunch of single moms trying to get through school on welfare or student loans?!? When guys like this cost $70 000/year to feed and supervise?!? I say kill him. We don’t need the expense. And that psychotic girlfriend Karla!! She cut his victims’ hair!! That’s something a WOMAN does to another woman. Men don’t think of stuff like that. She’s as GUILTY as he is. She killed her own 14 year old sister! She got her BA at the taxpayers’ expense, and walked after a few short years for pleading the abuse excuse. They should execute her too.

    Jeffrey Dahmer was poetic justice. They should have got Neil Jordan to make the movie. I bet his death-by-broom- handle-wielding-prison-nemesis would have been exquisite.

    Then you have the 2 10 year olds that kidnapped a toddler from a shopping mall in the UK a few years ago. They beat him unconscious with bricks and left him on the railroad tracks to get hit by a train. I don’t even know what to say about that case.

    And on and on the list goes… Yes execution is appropriate sometimes, but other times it’s not. Tough call.

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