Three years ago, on the morning of July 7, Steven J. Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky fled the home of the Petit family in Cheshire, Conn. As the police forcibly apprehended the two men, flames rose in the background; the Petit family’s house began to burn. Once the fire was eventually contained, police discovered inside Dr. William Petit Jr., beaten to within inches of his life, lying feet from his wife and two daughters — all three of whom were murdered, two of whom were sexually assaulted.
Such heinous acts remind us of the frightening possibilities of human conduct and the deep-rooted evils that can manifest themselves in the human psyche. When confronted by such monstrosities, we, as a society of laws, are compelled to act — to re-evaluate our fundamental system of order so that we can eradicate these most iniquitous aspects of humanity.
A Connecticut jury has recently been given that responsibility for the crimes against the Petits. On Oct. 5, Steven J. Hayes was convicted of 16 out of 17 charges, six of which made Mr. Hayes eligible for the death penalty. On Oct. 18, the same jury convened for the roughly month-long penalty phase of proceedings to decide whether or not Mr. Hayes should be put to death.
A recent Quinnipiac poll showed that roughly 65 percent of Connecticut residents support the death penalty, with an overwhelming 78 percent favoring the death penalty in this particular circumstance. Many of us, I presume, would share this sentiment at first glance. Nevertheless, Steven J. Hayes should not be executed, for the option of the death penalty should not exist in the United States.
Any views on the death penalty must be broken into two key parameters: principle and practice. Conceptually, the death penalty is both just and compatible with the values of a moral society. However, in practice, the death penalty embodies just the opposite.
The just nature of the death penalty derives from both an analysis of individual rights and an examination of proportionality in our justice system. Regarding the latter, our justice system certainly does not rest on Hammurabi’s Code, but the concept of retribution is central to it. Basic to our system of justice is the belief that a punishment should fit its crime. Thus, the necessary question becomes: What is the proportionate penalty for the loss of human life? I find one hard-pressed to make the claim that human life can be equivocated through any alternative means than life itself. Noting that the majority of murders are not even followed by life in prison (a moral repugnancy indeed), I would argue that even life in prison is not an appropriate requital. By letting one enjoy the gift of life (albeit in prison), be it through learning, self-improvement, or any form of pleasure (regardless of its intermittency), we are not truly exacting a fair retribution for the loss of life.
This leads well into the discussion of individual rights. Whether the product of years of human evolution or naturally derived, we as a society have agreed that man enters civil society and the world with fundamental rights and liberties. These rights, many of which are enumerated in our Constitution, cannot be taken away through arbitrary governmental action (due process). However, no one would argue that we, as a people, do not believe that individual rights can be taken away in response to an individual’s conduct (unless you don’t believe in prisons). Extrapolating on this idea, are there certain rights that are too fundamental to an individual for them to give away? I would say absolutely not. An individual is endowed with core rights, but they are not inextinguishable. When one attacks the civil order that preserves natural rights, he is thus sacrificing those protections of the state.
However, the just nature of the death penalty does not translate in its implementation. Estimates of the number of innocent people executed in the United States range as high as 39. Furthermore, since 1992, 15 inmates have been exonerated before facing the death penalty due to developments in DNA techniques during their incarceration. It is an indispensable fact that, when judging the death penalty, we will make mistakes. We will execute innocent people. Although I reject the argument that executing a guilty man is equivalent to murder, we deal with very different circumstances when we note the fallibility of the death penalty. Without the absolute guarantee that we will always be right, we are condoning the deaths of innocent men. We are condoning murder.
Thus, my opposition to the death penalty is not intrinsic to the punishment, but in response to its execution (no pun intended). I wish nothing but a life of suffering for men like Mr. Hayes, but we cannot form our views on the death penalty by the impulsive series of emotions that come from a case by case analysis. We must look at the institution — and the institution is incompatible with our society.
Harry Graver is a freshman in Davenport College.