Friday, March 06, 2009

Dr. Petit, the Ishmael of Connecticut

“And I alone am left to tell the tale” – Ishmael in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick

According to a news report, the judiciary committee, presided over by chairmen Michael Lawlor in the House and Andrew McDonald in the senate, both lawyers, had been tossing around the question whether the legislature should abolish Connecticut’s death penalty for about eight hours when the proverbial skunk showed up at the garden party.

Connecticut’s chief public defender, Susan Storey, testified that the death penalty was a drain on state resources and did not deter crime. Other speakers came forward and said that capital punishment was immoral.

Co-chairman of the committee Michael Lawlor said earlier in a press interview before the hearing, "No one's going to be executed in Connecticut unless they want to be executed. This is really a fraud of a public policy."

Mr. Lawlor was referring indirectly to the execution of serial killer Michael Ross, whose trial and execution took an inordinately long time to play out because, among other reasons, a judge unconnected with the case, Robert Chatigny, intervened moments before the execution and, by threatening Ross’ lawyer with the loss of his license, managed to bully the lawyer into allowing yet another hearing on the case. The judge was never properly punished for the role he played in the Ross case.

Ross wanted to be executed in deference to his victims' families, who had suffered greatly during his protracted ordeal. He was not permitted his wish.

When Dr. William Petit approached the microphone, the usual chatty tongues fell silent and the committee gave the doctor a respectful hearing.

Dr. Petit is the Ishmael of Connecticut. His Pequot, his home, went up in flames a few years ago, set afire by the alleged murderers of his wife and his two daughters. The alleged murderers, two petty thieves with long rap sheets to their credit, invaded Dr. Petit’s home, banged him over the head with a baseball bat, secluded him in the cellar, forced his wife to drive to her bank to make a withdrawal, raped his wife, raped one of his daughters, tied both daughters to a bed, set the house on fire and beat a hasty retreat, falling into the hands of police who, in response to a tip from the bank, had converged on the house.

At the hearing called to consider the abolition of the death penalty, Dr. Petit said “"Because men murdered Hayley, she cannot experience her college years at Dartmouth, row on the Connecticut River, or sit and chat with me. Because men murdered Jennifer, she can no longer comfort a student at Cheshire Academy, talk with her parents and sister or sit with me on our porch… My family got the death penalty, and you want to give murderers life. Any penalty less than death for murder is unjust and trivializes the victim and the victim's family. It is immoral and unjust to all of us in our society."

Dr. Petit knows he will have to wait for justice in his case. He is sensible of the obstacles that must be overcome in a state that has executed only two murderers in the last fifty years. Ross, who asked to be executed, was given the benefit of a trial, an automatic penalty hearing before a second jury that determined he was to be executed, numerous appellate challenges and finally, through the unorthodox intervention of a judge who was improperly punished for the role he played in delaying the execution, a final hearing.

"It's delay, delay, delay for no apparent reason…I'm human. I've bounced back and forth on occasion."

Indeed, Connecticut treats victims like Dr. Petit as if they were shuttle cocks. The place Dr. Petit used to call home is now a patch of green grass, and the doctor, having lost everything, has nothing left to lose. When you take from a man everything he has loved, you free him.

The ideologues in the legislature -- those who would argue that the death penalty ought to be abolished even in the face of such horrific capital crimes as were committed by Ross and the two alleged murderers of Dr. Petit's family – are not used to dealing with free men who have been bounced around on occasion.
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