Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


I'm not sure why I didn't get around to commenting on this earlier. As most will know, the Connecticut Supreme Court recently commuted the sentences of the 11 men on the state's death row.

This was an unusual situation in that Connecticut no longer imposes the death penalty, by statute. However, the legislature made the change only prospectively, meaning that crimes committed before the legislation were still subject to the penalty, and that existing sentences of death were still in effect. (At the time, there were 10 death row inmates. A later conviction for a crime committed before abolition added an 11th.)

The reason for this temporal distinction is telling. It is because the legislators felt it would be politically inexpedient to commute the sentences of two death row inmates, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky. For those who don't recognize the names, they are the perpetrators of the July, 2007 Cheshire home invasion, a crime sufficiently notorious that the phrase is essentially a proper noun. There's no particular reason for me to link to information about it, you can easily find it if you are interested. I wrote about it here quite extensively at the time.

That these two men, specifically, were the reason the legislation was not retroactive is indubitable. That was very much in the center of the political discourse at the time, as this contemporaneous account describes:

House Republicans, the minority party in the chamber,  focused heavily on how the bill is supposed to affect only future crimes and not the 11 men currently on death row, including the two men recently sentenced to death for killing a mother and two daughters in a gruesome home invasion in Cheshire. Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes have been sentenced in the last two years to death row for killing Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Hayley and Michaela.
 The question is why the debate was about this particular crime. Of the other inmates on death row, some had killed white people. (Sadly, that usually matters to public attitudes.) Some had tortured their victims. Some had multiple victims. At least one had raped and murdered a child, as did Komisarjesky. What was different about this case?

It was more recently in memory, but I think the main reason it got so much publicity and had so much political resonance was that it represented the invasion of an affluent, sheltered suburb by forces people presumed were confined to what to them was an alternate universe. Crimes like this happen in other places, and people in Cheshire don't pay much attention to them.

The Supreme Court's rationale in overturning the remaining sentences is hard to argue with. If the legislature, with the concordance of the public, no longer believes that capital punishment is appropriate, there is no reason why it would be appropriate for people who happened to commit their offenses before an arbitrary date. If it's in applicable to some, it is inapplicable to all.

Presidential candidate Lindsey Graham was exactly specific -- the outrage pertains to Hayes and Komisarjevsky, not to the other nine:

“Makes me want to throw up. Makes me want to throw up when I hear that putting these two guys to death for what they did to that family is somehow outside of the standards of decency,” Graham stated Monday to radio host Michael Medved. . . . If this doesn’t cry out for the death penalty nothing ever would and I don’t think you’re an indecent society when you take two men who broke into a family’s home, tortured two young girls, raped them, burned them alive — I don’t think that makes us indecent that they would be administered the death penalty,” declared Graham.
Well here's the bottom line. If you are for abolition, you are for abolition. Here there is no question of guilt, no evident extenuation, no question of insanity or capacity, and a crime of unimaginable depravity. But there's nothing to be gained by sinking to their level, like Lindsey Graham. We are better than that.

PS: Hayes has since claimed to be a serial killer and described killing 17 women and girls. The authorities have dismissed this as a fabrication. Prior to the event, both killers had extensive records of burglary and theft, but no convictions, or arrests, for violent crimes. Their parole to a halfway house -- where they met -- also became a political issue and resulted in some retrograde legislation. But that is for another day.

1 comment:

lawyer mouse said...

There are about 750 people on death row in California. I dare anybody to name more than a handful. All these crimes horrified people, but -- can they all be "worst of the worst"?

The alternative punishment is life without parole, which is sufficient to cover the risk of recidivism. There is no evidence at all that the death penalty deters crime. It is enormously more costly than life without parole. It is sought and applied unevenly, with no uniform standards; only 2% of counties nationwide account for the vast majority of death sentences. Virtually everybody with a death sentence was indigent when charged. Many cases are eventually overturned because not a lot of defense lawyers are trained and qualified, and the hot drama of a death penalty case often leads police and prosecutors to pursue victory at the cost of justice -- this is why over 150 people have been released from death rows because of INNOCENCE. The only remaining justification for having a death penalty is revenge. Is that good enough, despite the many problems of pursuing state killing?