Dr. William Petit stood on the steps of the New Haven Superior Court House. A jury had just recommended the death penalty for one of the men who had assaulted and murdered his wife and daughters. Though it was not his intent, he made such a compelling case for capital punishment that his remarks may well be regarded as having significantly stopped any momentum that the anti-capital punishment advocates have achieved in the last 45 years.
Dr. Petit poignantly referred to the “jagged hole” left in his life and his family’s lives by the brutal sexual assaults and murders of his two young daughters and his wife, carried out by two men who began their murderous activities as a robbery. In 25 minutes of comments that were sometimes interrupted when obvious waves of emotion overcame him, Dr. Petit managed to effectively counter the well-orchestrated and sentimental arguments against capital punishment that have been made since the 1960s.
What are those arguments, and how did Dr. Petit courageously manage to refute them?
The first is that society’s sympathy ought to be focused on the murderers themselves instead of their victims. This is view subtly encouraged by books like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood as well as a collection of death-row films that dramatize the suffering of those awaiting execution.
Dr. Petit’s statements properly reminded us of the victims and their suffering. In this case, there was the horror, fear, and pain of Michaela, his 11-year-old daughter, who was sexually assaulted, tied to her bed, forced to witness her attackers pouring out gasoline around her, and then setting fire to the room. As Dr. Petit pointed out, she died without the protection of her dead mother or her bound and beaten father. She died in her own bedroom surrounded by stuffed animals.
Nearly the same was done to her older sister Hayley, an extremely talented young lady whose potential as a 17-year-old had just begun to be realized.
As if that were not enough, imagine the unspeakable fear which filled Dr. Petit’s wife, who tried to placate the hoodlums by driving to the bank, returning with money only to be sexually assaulted and strangled. We don’t know if she knew or witnessed the plight of her helpless daughters, but that is probable. So, Dr. Petit, by quietly referring to the outrageous, barbaric, inhuman conduct of the killers, pulled back into the public’s mind the anguish experienced by the victims of such dastardly crimes.
The second argument that has been raised against capital punishment, under the guise of the Eighth Amendment, is that it is “cruel and unusual.” This position has been most forcefully stated by the late Supreme Court Justice, William Brennan. As Brennan wrote about convicted killers in 1985, “The calculated killing of a human being by the State involves, by its very nature, an absolute denial of the executed person’s humanity … even the most base [sic] criminal remains a human being possessed of some potential, at least, for common human dignity.”
Dr. Petit’s answer to that was pointed, although stated only by implication through the content of his remarks and his measured demeanor. Where was the “humanity” shown to his loved ones and to himself? Where was there even a shred of evidence showing that the two killers were “human” in their conduct? Where was there any sign of the potential for “common human dignity” in their senseless, grotesque actions? And yet, under the system of justice that Dr. Petit relied upon, such killers received or will receive a lengthy set of legal protections unmatched anywhere in the world. They will receive free legal counsel and be tried under the presumption of innocence. No count against them will stand without the support of evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. These slayers will have appeals upon appeals extending their lives for years, even though they failed to grant their innocent victims even additional minutes of life and whose crying appeals for mercy fell upon their hearts of stone. And then, under the system of justice which Dr. Petit and all of us depend upon, the murderers will be put to death in the most benign and humane way that modern science can devise, even though they consigned their victims to a death that was horribly cruel.
In closing, Dr. Petit stated that what will be done to these murderers, and the way in which it will be done, is justice—not revenge. And as he properly reminded his listeners, there will be for these two an eternal punishment that is much worse than any the state of Connecticut could inflict. May Dr. Petit’s daughters and his wife rest in eternal and heavenly peace, and may their attackers be consigned to eternal torment. Justice will then have been truly done.