Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Kill the bastards

I've thought of saying something about the Stephen Hayes trial, but I figured I'd wait till it was over. It so happens that New England has been going through two death penalty trials, regarding fairly similar levels of depravity. The other one, which for some reason got less national attention, is wrapping up in Nashua, New Hampshire, where some zombified young men entered a rural home where they hacked a mother to death, and attempted to murder her daughter but fell short of their goal, just for the fun of it.

None of these defendants is a poster boy for abolition of the death penalty. Hayes's partner, who will go on trial in January, probably gives defense attorneys even less to work with than Hayes did. As far as I can tell, abolitionists have had little to say about these cases, probably feeling that discretion is the better part of valor.

I hereby stipulate:

  • There is absolutely no doubt of guilt in either of them. (The Nashua jury hasn't returned a verdict as I write but still . . . )
  • The depravity and moral offense of the crimes is extreme. (Yes, the scale is small; we can talk about war crimes and genocide another time.)
  • There are no substantial mitigating circumstances or factors in either case.
  • There is no issue of racism or discrimination. All the relevant parties are white and of average class background.

As many have said, if the death penalty doesn't apply here, it never applies. These are slam dunks. (Nevertheless, the Hayes jury took almost four days to decide on the sentence, and evidently some jurors started off favoring life in prison.)

So why do I wade in here, where it is perhaps best not to tread? Because here is where I feel we must take a stand. If you read the comments on news articles about both cases, you will see mobs howling for vengeance. Many commenters make a great effort, and seem to take great pride, in trying to imagine the most gruesome tortures for the guilty, striving to outdo in their own imaginations the very crimes they claim to abhor.

That is, in the end, the only justification for having the state kill these men: vengeance. It obviously will not restore anything they destroyed, will not deter anyone else -- people who do such things have no thought for the future. All it accomplishes is to bring all of us a tiny bit of the way into their moral universe. I prefer to remain outside.


Ferdzy said...

Yes. Thank you.

anonymous lawyer said...

attempt 2 -- let's hope my computer sticks it out as i reconstruct...

you knew this post would draw me out. it is a terrible, heartwrenching crime. but you are correct about the death penalty being all about vengeance.

the alternative sentence here [and in most places that have a death penalty nowadays] was life without the possibility of parole. LWOP is not, contrary to dismissive comments in news articles, the equivalent of "letting someone off."

and contrary to comments in this article, which follow popular notions, the death penalty is NOT a deterrant. there are studies showing that (see the death penalty information center website). and -- let's be real about how such crimes -- nobody was sitting around beforehand thinking about whether the punishment would be 30 years or death. there was not a lot of quality thinking going on, as is often true in such awful cases.

here are some impressions, as a death penalty defense lawyer. not excuses, but reasons to be very uncomfortable with a verdict of death instead of LWOP. they are in no particular order.

* this particular defendant was NOT the "heavy." that guy will be tried next.

* this particular defendant had a history of abuse, mental health problems, and the self-medication that often accompanies such a background.

* this particular defendant offered to plead guilty, sparing the family and jurors from this ordeal, in exchange for an LWOP sentence. the prosecutors wanted more, even at the expense of the victim's family's experience.

* this particular defendant has a history of suicidal thoughts and attempts, and his lawyers -- the people who probably know him best at this point -- think he was happy with a death sentence because then he can commit "suicide by state."

why isn't LWOP enough?

anonymous lawyer said...

to turn back to the public health / public policy perspective of this blog -- it would make a lot more sense to take the millions of dollars invested in death penalty prosecutions and their subsequent appeals, and put that money into support programs for kids at risk.

trying to execute someone [vs. LWOP] costs a bloody fortune. and in virtually every single case of a person who ends up on death row, there were massive failures of support, caring, education, services in their early years. we have thousands of people on death row across the country, and they represent only the most unfortunate tip of the iceberg, among people who needed services as kids.

Cervantes said...

Actually, Hayes did not have a history of being abused -- at least not according to his brother, and his lawyers presented no evidence that he was either. There was just something wrong with the guy from the beginning. The part about self-medicating is certainly true, however, as is everything else that you say.

I suspect the prosecutors might have gone for the LWOP deal, but Dr. Petit wanted them to give him the needle, as did Jennifer's preacher father. I wouldn't presume to put myself in their place, but it is my feeling that saving them, the jury, and the community the pain and trauma of the trial and the penalty phase would have been a big win. What can I say, Petit sat through the whole thing and he seemed to get some sort of satisfaction from it.

I had forgotten that NH doesn't have the death penalty. Spader got LWOP automatically -- they still had a trial but no penalty phase. Quicker, cleaner, easier on all concerned I think.

anonymous lawyer said...

all we have to go on here is a news account, which is rather strongly supportive of the prosecution, and very short on details of the defense. but still, that account says:

"During the penalty phase, Hayes' lawyers argued that a series of mitigating factors, including Hayes' addiction to drugs, a 'significantly impaired' mental state, a troubled family history of abuse, a weak personality and the responsibility they say Hayes has taken for the killings with his offers to plead guilty in exchange for life in prison without release, warranted a life sentence rather than death."

yes, his own brother testified against him, called by the prosecution. it is impossible to tell if anything corroborated this testimony of the brother, or if he himself cooperated with the prosecution for reasons of his own.

i have no idea why the brother was apparently the only family member of the defendant called. that is unusual, and makes me wonder whether his lawyers did the kind of investigation that is normally done in these cases. at least when competent and qualified [experienced with death cases] counsel are appointed.

maybe you are right, that something was wrong with this guy from the beginning. we are left with very little picture of what-all was wrong -- whether any of it could have been ameliorated, of what might have changed things entirely. if we are interested in prevention and intervention, aren't those good things to know?

Cervantes said...

We have a severe deficit of early intervention services for children with behavioral disorders. If they get anything at all, it's mostly pills.

Most of the time, "mental illness" in children means there is something seriously wrong in their social environment. But, some kids brains just don't hook up correctly. I don't know for sure whether Hayes is totally in the latter category, but it doesn't much matter. Either way, I'm sure he could have gotten more effective help than just being repeatedly locked up with fellow criminals.

anonymous lawyer said...

in a great many cases, there is a tragic confluence of brain-based problems, trauma [often chronic], and huge failures of social support. and these things work together; humans are complex beings.