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.

5 comments:

David Moelling said...

Well said. I used to be opposed to the death penalty as too much power to give the state, but after reading some of David Gerlenter's writings I've changed my mind. He was nearly killed by the Unibomber and has considered the death penalty closely. He notes that if applied to the most heinous crimes it represents society's careful and serious condemnation of evil.

Locking someone away for life is a trivial act which can be done carelessly and displays that carelessness to society at large.

Putting a criminal to death is and should be a careful, thoughtful process, but a necessary one to show we value our citizens lives enough to take it away from their killers.

Anonymous said...

I was opposed to the death penalty, until a friend was brutally murdered in the parking lot at her workplace for the pitiful contents of her handbag. The patience of me and my liberal friends was sorely tried as two young men were apprehended in the crime, and one -- indicted by the other -- pleaded guilty to the murder. The plea got him life instead of the death penalty.
Imagine my shock, driving to work a few yaers later, to hear that he had been released from prison -- I knew the name of course -- BECAUSE THE REAL MURDERER HAD BEEN FOUND. Turned out the kid, surrounded by circumstancial evidence and a scared-shitless friend who turned on him to save him own skn, had copped a plea to save his life. And had never been the murderer.
I started looking, then, at how many innocents have been executed in this country for crimes they did not commit. The number is not large -- not nearly as large as the number of guilty who are executed. But -- is even ONE innocent death worth the price? If not one, then -- how many? How many innocents is it okay to slaughter to make sure that we put the animals down forever?
If you imprison someone for life, you can always undo the mistake. Never entirely, for how do you restore a year, five yaers, a decade of imprisonment to an innocent? But if you put him to death, there is no "do-over". You've killed an innocent, and compounded the crime you intended to punish.
I am committed against the death penalty -- not because I think it is inhumane, or that people should not pay for their lives for horrendous crimes, but because we make mistakes. Enough of them to call the entire procedure deeply into question.
For Dr. Petit, I have nothing but sympathy. I have prayed for that man every night since the tragedy.
-- Still Liberal in MD

Don Pesci said...

No one wants to see any innocent person punished -- ever. However proceedures in Connecticut surrounding the death penalty assure this will not happen. In Dr. Petit's case, there are no such mistakes as you have mentioned. I agree we must maintain a high level of vigilance.

Patrice said...

I pray for Dr. Petit, as well, and have been haunted by this tragedy since it happened. This could have been any of us that this happened to. While I understand some of the arguments about "innocent" people being executed or charged, in this case, these rats admitted it, did it, we know they did it, and however they die, it will be far more humane that what they put this family through, and the hell that Dr. Petit must live every day. I am totally for the death penalty in this case.

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous said...
I was opposed to the death penalty, until a friend was brutally murdered in the parking lot at her workplace for the pitiful contents of her handbag."

This story is a total lie. I am positive that this wuld have made the news and I never heard it, as he claims it did.

As a Forensics Examiner, I can tell you that there are many many scientific ways to assure identifying a true killer. 30 years ago, some innocent people were convicted but the likelyhood of that happening now is impossible. The problem is, there is no money for DNA testing because our government is spending all of our money and they have had to cut back.

Death Penalty must remain, to deter monsters such as these, to kill and torture innocent children.