When We Can’t Kill Those Who Deserve To Die

By ROBERT BLECKER, The Hartford CourantApril 1, 2012

Once again the politicians think they know better than the people, preparing to abolish capital punishment in the teeth of popular support for the death of those who most deserve it.

Ask the people about Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes — at least three quarters of Connecticut knows that these depraved and sadistic monsters deserve to die for raping then burning alive the Petit family in 2007. But the majority of Connecticut’s General Assembly and governor would abolish the death penalty, call it “justice” and call it a day.

If the legislature abolishes the death penalty, it will be a great day in Connecticut for the worst of the worst. Condemned killers on death row, no less than experts on both sides, all understand “prospective only” abolition as a fraud.

The state will never execute anybody for a crime that could no longer get death. The death penalty and death row will be left to wither. Russell Peeler, who had an 8-year-old and his mother killed to eliminate the child as a witness; Todd Rizzo, who used a sledgehammer to beat to death a 13-year-old boy to know what it felt like — all the condemned can look forward to their release into general population where their crimes will be forgotten and consciously ignored by officers and prisoners alike, eager to make the best of their lives, day-by-day.

Historians will record it. In 2012, the death penalty in Connecticut had this feel: Unable to withstand well orchestrated and relentless attacks, weighed down by disuse and expense, its time seemed to have passed. The whole institution felt like a burdensome vestige of an irrational obsession with the past. Even Dr. William Petit Jr. appears more prepared than ever to move on, with his announced marriage and absence from the latest hearings before a judiciary committee preset to recommend abolition.

Grieving survivors should never be made to feel guilty in giving up the hate and getting on with their lives. But Dr. Petit was not murdered, raped and burnt alive. His family was. We, the political family of the victim, although one step removed, in our righteous indignation, our need for justice — we, strangers but fellow citizens, fellow survivors, equally vulnerable to viciousness and terror, feel — yes, feel — continually connected to the slain. Compared to the survivors’ grief, immediate and intense, enduring sometimes crippling — our righteous indignation, our rage at the callous or sadistic murderer may seem mere commentary. Their healing takes priority.

Many immediate survivors could better come to terms with their loss, but for this nagging feeling that moving beyond their anger means letting down their loved one. Only by keeping the wound fresh, they fear, can they keep the memory alive. They may feel guilty in healing, as if looking forward turns their backs on their beloved and buries them a second time.

Although brutal murderers may enjoy long lives in prison while the memory of their suffering victim decays, many abolitionists, especially devout Christians, maintain their moral equilibrium through faith that justice will be done in the hereafter. This belief consoles them. The need for justice may especially incline victims’ survivors to those religious beliefs — seeking as they do, solace in the face of suffering. It would console me to believe that my loved one’s brutal murderer will someday face ultimate justice. Our secular society, however, separates church and state. We, the people, commit ourselves to human justice in this world — here, now — as if there will be no hereafter.

Can we abolish the death penalty and still keep our covenant with the victim we never knew? Never to forgive; never to forget. Can we keep the fire burning until justice at last is done? We, fellow citizens of the slain, declare to the survivors: The voice of your brother’s blood, your parent’s blood, our children’s blood, the blood of your beloved, cries out to us from the ground. It remains our responsibility and we accept it: to continue to hate sadistic viciousness, and callous predators. We will not allow politicians’ anguished deliberation to diminish our felt need for justice.

Now is the time to take our turn at the watch; to sit in for the family. We pledge to the survivors we will not let our anger cool, our memory decay. We will retain our righteous indignation, and keep up the pressure for justice. And if we no longer can punish the worst killers by the death they deserve, we will do our best to keep a covenant with the dead. We pledge to the victims that we, the lucky, spared the murderous wrath of their depraved and sadistic killers, will punish those murderers every day with life. Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky deserve to die. If the state keeps them alive, they deserve to live miserably, forever condemned, segregated and denied the perks and privileges of daily prison life.

The end of death as punishment does not end, but opens a conversation. What should the punishment of life feel like, day-to-day, when we can no longer kill those who most deserve to die?

Robert Blecker is a criminal law professor at New York Law School. Part I of his punishment memoir, “Let the Great Axe Fall,” is available as a Kindle Single