On July 23, 2007, Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes went to the home of Dr. William Petit in Cheshire, Connecticut. Hayes forced Dr. Petit’s wife – Jennifer Hawke-Petit – to accompany him to a bank and withdraw a large sum of money. During that time, Komisarjevsky stayed at the home with the family’s two daughters, Hayley (17) and Michaela (11). Dr. Petit was bound and left in the basement, where he bled from a severe head wound sustained when Komisarjevsky beat him with a baseball bat. The two girls were bound to their beds. Komisarjevsky sexually assaulted Michaela, then took photos of her on his cell phone. When Hayes returned with Hawke-Petit, he sexually assaulted her, and then strangled her to death. One (or both) of the men then doused the daughters and the home with gasoline, and set it on fire, burning the girls alive. Hayes and Komisarjevsky then ran from the house and were subsequently apprehended. Dr. Petit miraculously survived. Hayes and Komisarjevsky were convicted and sentenced to death. News accounts of the trials are here and here. The story was also the subject of an HBO documentary, “The Cheshire Murders.”
Their prosecutions involved brutal, highly aggravated crimes with minimal mitigation, and overwhelming (indeed, effectively undisputed) evidence of guilt. The evidence presented to the jury was so gruesome and disturbing that the state offered post-traumatic stress services for the jurors.
Today, the Connecticut Supreme Court tells us that, as far as the Connecticut Constitution is concerned, no legitimate goal of punishment could be achieved by executing Hayes or Komisarjevsky. Under no circumstances — no matter how brutal or depraved the murder, no matter how strong the State’s case — can these men, or anyone else, ever be executed for a crime in Connecticut. To do so would be cruel and unusual, and contrary to the moral standards of modern society. (Doug Berman and the folks at C&C have more here and here).
That would come as shocking news to the good people of Connecticut, who not only believed that the death penalty was just and appropriate for these monsters, but who also continued to approve of their execution despite repealing the State’s death penalty after the fact. Typically, when a state abolishes the death penalty legislatively, it is saying that there is no crime — no matter how brutal or depraved, no matter how aggravated, no matter how strong the evidence and no matter how minimal the mitigating factors — for which the death penalty is appropriate. The people of Connecticut did not exactly say that: they said, through their elected representatives, that going forward that will be true, but that people like Hayes and Komisarjevsky still deserve to die for what they did.
I respect the arguments against capital punishment, and many abolitionists are colleagues and friends. I get the opposition. But I cannot agree with this ruling. And in addition to the flaws in its legal reasoning, the judiciary of Connecticut has unilaterally deprived the people of that State, Dr. Petit, and his family of justice — justice they thought that they secured only a few short years ago. It is disheartening.
Let this be yet another lesson for those States contemplating abolition: once you say that there are no acts, ever, that are sufficiently evil, depraved, or horrific, and no evidence of guilt ever strong enough, to justify even the option of even considering capital punishment, you had better be prepared to live with that decision. And you’ll have to do so with the understanding that more Hayeses, more Komisarjevskys, more Tsarnaevs, and more McVeighs may still be out there.