Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Time and Old Wounds: Dr. Petit's Strikes

There are some wounds time won’t heal. Such is the murder of three members of Dr. William Petit’s household.

The household -- Dr. Petit, his wife and two daughters – was attacked by two career criminals, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, both on parole.

A recent news story – “Second look, A Year After Cheshire Home Invasion, William Petit Speaks Up For Tougher Crime Laws” – pithily describes what happened: “On a July night in 2007, intruders clubbed and trussed Petit at his home in Cheshire, the start of an ordeal that ended with the deaths of his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and their daughters, Hayley, 17, and 12-year-old Michaela.

“Hawke-Petit and Michaela were raped. The mother was strangled. Both daughters were left bound in their beds, the house doused with gasoline and set afire.”

The scene of the crime has since disappeared. Where before there was a house and a family, now there is nothing. The erasure process, sometimes confused with a healing process, has now begun. It is as if Huns had appeared out of the black night, destroyed a village, burnt it to the ground and sowed the scene of the devastation with salt, so that not even the memory of the village would survive.

Since the commission of the crime, Dr. Petit has given up his practice and devoted himself to a worthy cause: He has become, according to one news story, “an activist now, willing to stand with any candidate who pledges to support a mandatory life sentence on violent three-time felons.”

"I support the Three Strikes Now Coalition and the concept because I feel it's the government's first duty to protect its citizens," Petit said. "I'm not sure we need much government if the government can't protect us."

The two vandals will be prosecuted under Connecticut’s Rube Goldberg-like death penalty process, and by the time justice is finally served, there will be, it may be safely predicted, dozens of “second looks.” Dr. Petit, the sole survivor of the murder of his family, will have miles to go before he sleeps. Ahead of him lies the trial of the two career criminals, a series of appeals, a mandatory sentencing, common in death penalty cases, trial appeals, sentencing hearing appeals, and finally, at the end of a seemingly interminable string of trials, re-trials, hearings, rehearings, appeals and unexpected interventions, Dr. Petit may, if he is not by that time spiritually exhausted, receive an approximation of justice.

We have seen this process in play during the trial and execution of Michael Ross, a legally twisted affair in which a judge philosophically opposed to the death penalty intervened in the case at the last moment and bullied Ross’ lawyer with the suspension of his law license until he agreed to yet another death penalty hearing. Even Ross, by this time, was exhausted: He wanted the death penalty imposed, if only to spare the families of his eight victims further unnecessary emotional suffering.

One of the fathers of the last 14 year-old girl murdered by Ross weathered all the media hoopla, all the trials and hearings, many more than three, and after Ross’ execution was delayed once again by the intervening judge, some solicitous reporter stuck a mic in his face and asked him for his “reaction.”

The face that looked out at the camera was spiritually wasted.

“Everything has been said.”

The dogged reporter asked him again for his reaction, and she was greeted with an exhausted silence.

No one was counting the number of strikes, many more than three, the man had been lashed with.

The Ross trial now has become a distant memory. It will appear in reports during the Hayes and Komisarjevsky trial as a piquant statistic.

"Even now,” Dr Petit said in a recent interview, “you feel like you are being abused. Somebody murders your family in 2007, and they tell you they're going to go to trial in 2010. Wow, what a great system we have."
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