Olivarius: Hayes verdict sets a sinister precedent

Culture Quotient

On Monday, jurors in state Superior Court in New Haven voted unanimously to sentence Steven Hayes to death, after finding him guilty last month of six capital felony charges. Early this year, Hayes, 47, along with fellow recent parolee Joshua Komisarjevsky, 30 (set to be tried next year) found Dr. William A. Petit sleeping on his couch, beat him with a baseball bat and locked him in the basement. Hayes then forced Petit’s wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, to withdraw $15,000 from her bank account. Komisarjevsky sexually assaulted their 11-year-old daughter, Michaela. Hayes raped Hawke-Petit, then strangled her. The men tied the two girls to their beds, doused them in gasoline and set the house on fire. Only William Petit survived.

The “Cheshire murders” are about as horrible a crime as you can get. The three and a half days of deliberation were spent “solemnly considering when capital punishment was warranted.” Some of the jury wept as the verdict was read; the case had even shifted the views of jurors who had staunchly opposed the death penalty in the past.

In colonial times, if someone was condemned to die, there was no chance for appeals or new evidence. You went from the courthouse to the gallows. In the 2010 judiciary system, a long wait begins. Hayes joins 10 other Connecticut residents on death row, some whom since 1987. It will likely be years before Hayes faces the needle. He will probably appeal the decision, multiple times, and clog up our court systems even more than they already are. His lawyers, incarceration and appeals will cost Connecticut taxpayers about $3 million. Imagine if Reverend John Davenport had faced a bill of $3 million dollars for a 1640s execution. He would probably have committed blasphemy.

Since 1976, Connecticut has executed only one person. Last year, the Connecticut General Assembly passed a bill that would have outlawed capital punishment permanently, but Governor M. Jodi Rell vetoed the bill.

The Cheshire case jury and the State of Connecticut have not been the only ones troubled by the question of capital punishment. At Yale, I find that many conversations about the death penalty and the Cheshire murders tend to focus on two questions: 1) What if it was your family that was murdered; wouldn’t you want the perpetrator to die? and 2) Aren’t there some crimes that are just so horrible that a criminal forfeits his or her right to live?

The answer to number one is almost always “Yes.” More “I would want to kill them myself.” Some people bring up the question of forgiveness, but that seems unfair. If I were Dr. Petit, forgiveness would be the last thing on my mind. But luckily for justice, this question of punishment is answered by a panel of unbiased peers.

The answer to question number two is more complicated. Gallup’s annual crime survey found that 65 percent of Americans support the use of the death penalty for persons convicted of murder, while 31 percent oppose it. This trend has stayed constant over the last six years. What Hayes and Komisarjevsky did was so horrible that it’s hard to think about the possibility of redemption. With this case, even people and jurors against the death penalty find it hard to stick to their guns. But what good will killing Steven Hayes actually accomplish? His victims are not coming back to life. Will executing Hayes really help Dr. Petit move past the killings? It is impossible to tell. Does it really make sense to kill people who kill people in order to show that killing is wrong? Our prison system demonstrates that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent for murderers. The death penalty shouldn’t be an answer in a modern nation. It is the symbol of a horribly broken justice system. This sentence will set a precedent that, even if they think the death penalty is wrong in general, there can be exceptions.

What is truly worse? The death penalty — a release and an escape — or a life sentence in the American prison system, without the possibility of parole?

Kathryn Olivarius is a senior in Branford College.

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