Law in Contemporary Society

The Death Penalty: A Connecticut Case Study

-- By JulieParet - 25 Feb 2013

Home Invasion

My hometown of Cheshire, CT, where I return every Thanksgiving and Christmas, is exactly what I imagine people to picture when they think of “a sleepy town in Connecticut” — a prototypical suburbia, where euveryone knows everyone, and nothing out of the ordinary ever happens. That’s all it ever was, until one summer night in July 2007, when it became the site of a home invasion of unimaginable horror that would forever transform my once ordinary town.

It was surreal. Hayley and Michaela went to my middle school. I rode the bus with them every day. We got on at the same stop, where my mom used to chat with Mrs. Petit before the bus arrived. And then, the news broke. I listened in horror as the details were slowly revealed: how two men had followed Mrs. Petit home from the store, how they beat her husband and tied him in the basement, how they escorted Mrs. Petit to the bank to withdraw $15,000 from her account; how the teller called 911 and the police had set up a perimeter, but that it was too late; how they tied Mrs. Petit and her daughters, 17-year-old Hayley and 11-year-old Michaela, to their beds and molested them, right before strangling Mrs. Petit and dousing them all in gasoline, and setting the house on fire, killing all but Dr. Petit, who not only lost his wife and two daughters, but all of the records of their shared lives together as his home went up in the flames.

There aren’t words to describe the horror of what had happened to the two girls I used to ride the bus with, or to their mother or father, each in their separate ways. The whole town wept. The revulsion and the anger were palpable. There was not a soul in the state who did not want those men to pay for what they did. Unsurprisingly, Joshua Komisarjevsky and his accomplice Steven J. Hayes both unanimously received the death sentence following their conviction of multiple counts of murder, sexual assault, kidnapping, arson, and capital felony. They currently remain on death row, where they await execution by lethal injection.


In 2012, just seven short years after this unanimous verdict was cast, Connecticut became the 17th state to repeal the death penalty. In the wake of such a tremendous tragedy, the decision was unfathomable to many. The dust had barely settled. The people of Connecticut all bore witness to one of the most heinous and truly depraved combination of crimes in our state’s history, committed against a beloved family in the community – precisely the kind of crimes that the death penalty was made for. The legislation’s response was to revoke the very punishment that its own people had decided was right to impose to bring these men to justice.

Although the law “will not apply” retroactively to the eleven inmates currently sitting on death row, including the two men responsible for the Petit home invasion and triple-homicide, this is a sham, charading as a consolation to those who thought they were given peace which now will never truly come. Because despite firm insistence that those condemned to death will not benefit from unconstitutional ex post facto application of this new law, the reality is that it is extremely unlikely that any of these inmates will actually be put to death now that Connecticut has outlawed the death penalty. In other words, this decision effectively reversed their death sentence.


On this momentous occasion in Connecticut’s history, Governor Malloy issued a statement in which he cited a long list of reasons for this decision, many of which I was surprised to find myself agreeing with. Despite the utmost effort to the contrary, the death penalty will always be slightly arbitrary because it is subject to the fallibility of the people who participate in it—whether it be the inadequacy of legal representation, unconscious biases and discrimination, or mistaken evidence leading to the travesty of those who are wrongfully accused. It is Governor Malloy’s position that the only true way to do away with these injustices is to eliminate the death penalty altogether.

What’s more, the death penalty is a broken system, and the benefits simply do not justify the costs. Connecticut spends about 5 million dollars a year to maintain it, but has executed only one man since 1960: serial killer Michael Ross, who was notorious for raping and then killing his young female victims. This already dire statistic is further weakened by the fact that Ross was only executed because he gave up his rights to appeal, allegedly believing that he had been “forgiven by God.”

The list goes on. Life without parole is a death sentence in many ways, and vice versa. On top of that, the death penalty is exponentially more costly yet makes us no safer than its alternative. We can’t fight murder with murder, or evil with evil. Yet no matter how you spin it, it is exactly this kind of ‘eye-for-an-eye’ or ‘tit-for-tat’ mentality that the death penalty perpetuates, and everyone above the age of five knows the saying ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’. Furthermore, even to those not purporting to take the moral high ground, there is still nothing to lose by revoking the death penalty because life without parole in many ways can be considered a punishment worse than death. Even Hayes recognized this: when the jury read out his sentence, he smiled. He smiled because he wanted to be executed, not due to remorse, or belief of his own moral desert, but because he knew this was the easy way out.


Ever since I have called my own beliefs into question, I have vacillated between standing firm in my convictions, and watching them fall apart around me. Indeed, the reasons I once had for supporting it seem to pale in comparison to the very rational and logical reasons that Governor Malloy gave for abandoning it. But that is just it—they are rational, and I have lost my ability to reason when it comes to the retraction of the death penalty, because it disturbs the peace I have made with my own trauma.

Not long ago, I thought that the death penalty was distinct from life without parole because of its unique ability to bring true, untouchable closure, once and for all. God is the final arbiter, and criminals await far worse punishment from Him than they could ever be subjected to on this Earth. The knowledge that someone has departed from this Earth, I thought, could bring a more liberating and profound sense of closure than the knowledge that they are locked away forever in state prison. However, as Dr. Petit himself has said, when you suffer a loss at the hands of a crime as heinous as he did, “there is never closure. There is a hole.”

The death penalty is one of the most ardently debated issues of our time, and there is a strong argument for each side—indeed so strong that my own persona is split on what to make of it all. From a financial or utilitarian or even rational standpoint, I am capable of recognizing that the scales seem to tip in favor of the abandonment of this “broken” system. But my personal and emotional involvement leads to an inconsistent and unsatisfying result, which I don't know if I will ever be able to reconcile.

Works Cited

Why aren't these just links in the text?

I don't understand the idea the essay is meant to convey. You are, it appears, ambivalent about ending the death penalty because there are some people you want to kill. The people you want to kill are closer to being dead than most other people people want to kill in order to "get closure" for other killings. So, despite your recognition that "rationally" those other people shouldn't be given whatever psychological satisfaction they take from the execution of the murderers at whom they are particularly angry, you'd like to get yours.


The difficulty is the direct unmediated juxtaposition of your personal emotion and the issue of constitutional policy. You feel this way, as citizens feel a variety of strong ways for a variety of personal and psychically complex reasons. But making interpretative use of that fact requires more intermediate conceptual material, which you don't provide. How are we to understand you personal feelings in relation to the public issues? That you are ambivalent isn't in itself of much value to the reader or the rest of us.

We are all, I think, for example, —yourself included—aware of the obsessive quality of the search for revenge, "closure," "satisfaction of honor," quiet rest of the spirit of the murdered relative, or whatever name we give to the obsession. Are you asking us to recognize, criticize, accept, defer to, or cure the obsession? Are we being told that public policy should be, should not be, is, or is not made on the basis of obsessional behaviors by individuals and groups? Are you introspectively describing an obsession of which you are critical? Why do the obsessions we acquire in this way deserve to affect public policy, while the obsessions we acquire in other fashions are our own business: Why does what you need "for closure" become a public question, where what you need "for sex" or what you need "for dealing with fear of old age and death" is not?

You are entitled to restrict access to your paper if you want to. But we all derive immense benefit from reading one another's work, and I hope you won't feel the need unless the subject matter is personal and its disclosure would be harmful or undesirable. To restrict access to your paper simply delete the "#" character on the next two lines:

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r5 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:15:33 - IanSullivan
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