A Horrific Crime: But Is Execution the Answer?

By Kaveny, Cathleen | Commonweal, December 17, 2010 | Go to article overview

A Horrific Crime: But Is Execution the Answer?


Kaveny, Cathleen, Commonweal


After deliberating for four days last month, a Connecticut jury imposed the death penalty on Steven Hayes, one of two men charged with three horrific murders during a home invasion in July 2007. Joshua Komisarjevsky, his alleged accomplice, will be tried separately next spring.

When I heard the verdict, I experienced an immediate sense of relief. Since then I have been struggling to reconcile my initial reaction with my moral opposition to the death penalty.

Hayes and Komisarjevsky broke into the suburban home of the Petit family in the dead of the night, beat the father senseless with a baseball bat, raped the mother, and terrorized the two daughters, one seventeen years old and the other just eleven. The little girl was also raped. When morning came, the two men forced the mother to withdraw fifteen thousand dollars from the bank, promising to release the family if she complied with their demands. Despite the fact that she managed to alert the authorities, help came too late. She was murdered within an hour of the timestamp marking her appearance on the grainy footage from the bank camera. Most horrible of all was the fate of the two girls. They were tied to their beds and doused with accelerant, left to burn alive after the criminals set the house ablaze. Only the smallest of cosmic mercies permitted the daughters to die of smoke inhalation before the flames reached their bodies.

As the saying goes, hard cases make bad law. This case is not representative of the death-row docket. For example, the state of Virginia recently executed a mentally handicapped woman. Moreover, there is a good deal of evidence suggesting that the practice of capital punishment is racist. The penalty is far more likely to be imposed in the case of a black perpetrator, especially if his victim is white. Finally, as improvements in DNA technology have demonstrated, many innocent persons have spent time on death row. Doubtless some have been executed for a crime they didn't commit.

Nonetheless, hard cases keep ethical reflection honest. They press us to clarify just why we hold the positions we hold. By making us uncomfortable, they also make us think. Here's what this case brought to my mind.

It's not enough to oppose the death penalty. As John Paul II acknowledged in Evangelium vitae, we also have to ensure that the appropriate structures are in place to keep dangerous men and women from harming others. Both Hayes and Komisarjevsky committed this crime while on parole. Furthermore, parole board members approved Komisarjevsky's early release without reviewing records that included a judge's description of him as a "cold, calculating predator. …

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