The Dishonesty of Death Penalty Opponents
According to police investigators, Steven Hayes, a 44-year-old career criminal, and Joshua Komisarjevsky, a 26-year-old professional burglar, invaded the Cheshire, Connecticut home of the Pettit family while the entire family was in it. They brutally beat Dr. William Petit unconscious and left him for dead in the basement and they raped his wife Jennifer and their eleven-year-old daughter Michaela. Then they strangled Mrs. Petit and tied Michaela and her seventeen-year-old sister Hayley to their beds before setting the house on fire. The girls were burned alive; Dr. Petit managed to drag himself out of the house to be the lone survivor of the carnage.
The evidence against the two is said to be overwhelming. But when New Haven State’s Attorney Michael Dearington said he would pursue the death penalty if Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky are convicted, the abundant and powerful opponents of capital punishment rushed to the microphones and vowed to fight. Connecticut hasn’t tried to put anyone new on Death Row for 25 years, when a serial killer named Michael Ross was sent there. And many have vowed to keep it that way.
Good. Death penalty opponents are absolutists, or should be. The Scoreboard doesn’t agree with their position, which can be succinctly summarized as the moral contention that taking a life is always wrong combined with the logical one that two wrongs can’t make a right. If one believes that, however, one must be willing to apply the principle to Osama Bin Laden, Adolf Hitler, the BTK Killer, and the Petit family murderers. Too many Americans who give lip service to the anti-death penalty movement when it involves some distant state’s execution of a cop-killer suddenly lose their ardor when killers like Washington D.C.’s Beltway Snipers appear, cold-blooded murderers who act with random viciousness without reason or provocation. Then one hears a chorus of “I oppose the death penalty but ” when the argument against the death penalty permits no buts.
This poses a problem for the genuine death penalty opponents, who are far fewer in number than the polls of pro- and anti- death penalty opinion show. The movement to abolish executions depends on increasing public support, and when someone does something like blow up a building full of people or torture and murder a women and her children just for the fun of it, sympathy for the killers becomes difficult to sustain. The Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty is well-accustomed to this problem, but their solution to it is ethically objectionable.
Fearing that most of its arguments against the death penalty as a concept (it is racially biased, it doesn’t deter violent crime, it isn’t 100% certain to only kill the guilty) lose their persuasiveness when applied to a crime like the Cheshire murders, Robert Nave, the head of the CNADP, has cooked up an amended approach that concentrates on two specious debating points. Both are grounded in dishonesty and misrepresentation.
On the group’s website, he writes this
In public statements and interviews with the media, Nave has made this point the core of his case for alleged killers. For example, in a column by the Hartford Courant’s Rick Green, Nave was quoted as asking rhetorically, “What’s the difference between the two kids in Hartford and the Petits in Cheshire?” These were the murders Nave referred to on his site, two teens shot in the face at close range on a Hartford street, late at night. On cue, the uncritical Green answers as if Nave’s point is a slam dunk. Ah, yes “They were two young black men, out on the street in the middle of the night, not an upper-middle-class family of the Connecticut suburbs.”
Well, there are more differences evident in that statement than just race, as Nave (and Green, who in the time-honored technique of dishonest journalists, pretends to be “convinced” by Nave when he was in his camp all along) would have it. Being shot late at night on the streets of Hartford, where people are assaulted and shot with some regularity, is very different from being raped and burned to death in the safety of one’s own home. One is a fairly common crime, and the other has elements of unusual cruelty and depravity. There are more important distinctions that would naturally lead to more public outrage over the Cheshire killings without the element of racial bias. The Petit victims included a young child, who was also raped. There were twice as many victims in Cheshire, which by itself could justify twice the outrage. The perpetrators burned down a house with living people trapped inside! Don’t Nave and Green regard that as more horrible even than shooting?
And there is more: nobody knows who killed the teens in Hartford or why. Was it an execution, or a drug deal gone bad? Had the two been involved in a long exchange of hostilities with their killer or killers? Or were they on the way to doing charity work in a soup kitchen? It makes a difference: all murders are horrible, but some are worse than others. All murderers are criminals, but some murderers compound their crime with cruelty and defiance of society’s most cherished values. No murder victim deserves to die, but some are more innocent than others. We know that the Cheshire victims were innocent, peaceful and had done nothing to provoke the attack on them. We don’t know that yet about the Hartford teens. The race and class of the victims in the two murders were the least of the differences between them, and obviously so.
Yet Nave, Green and others who seek to save Hayes and Komisarjevsky pretend otherwise, choosing to play the race card rather than argue honestly.
Nave’s second argument, perhaps even more objectionable, goes like this (again from the group’s website):
When Nave runs this one by the gullible faux death penalty advocate Green, he overwhelms the columnist with his logic. Green concludes his column saying,
This is shameless bootstrapping par excellence. The absurd amount of time it takes to execute a duly tried and convicted killer has little to do with a fair appeals process and much to do with the obstructive delaying tactics of Nave’s allies and their lawyers. If they were really concerned with dragging out the victims’ families’ ordeal interminably, they could greatly alleviate the problem by not forcing the state to spend absurd amounts of time and money getting admitted serial killers (like the afore-mentioned Michael Ross) off the planet.
Nave’s argument is a close relative of the gag where a child who kills his parents begs for mercy on the grounds that he’s an orphan. The state will be dragging out closure for the victims? How dare Nave make that argument, when he would extend the process forever to save the likes of the Cheshire murderers no matter what its toll on the victims’ surviving family members?
Nave’s argument also misrepresents the purpose of the death penalty, though admittedly, thanks to him and others, much of the public accepts his misrepresentation. Punishment for murder and other heinous crimes is not for the benefit of the victims or their families. If that were true, then murderers of victims without families or friends would get lighter sentences. State punishment is for the sake of society and civilization. It makes the crucial statement that certain conduct makes civilized living impossible, and will not be tolerated. The death penalty exists, and needs to exist, because the law must make it clear that there are varying degrees of seriousness among crimes and that the more serious the crime, the more burdensome the punishment should be. Treason is punishable by death because the crime threatens the existence of society itself. It is at the top of the hierarchy of forbidden acts, but it must share that spot with murder when the murder rises to the level of an assault on the underpinnings of society itself. Serial murders, I would argue, do that. So do the murders of police and the assassination of government officials. Killing children belongs in this category, as do deadly home invasions, like the one that destroyed the Petit family.
Other murders and crimes are less offensive than these, as horrible as they might be. Nave and his supporters confuse the issue by representing all murders as the same, and perhaps to them they are, Nevertheless, this is false. If a society only punishes the Petit family’s murderers with life without parole, the more routine cold-blooded killer of two (say, O.J. Simpson) will get less punishment, perhaps imprisonment with the chance of parole. An enraged husband who kills his wife’s lover may get less yet. Is it any wonder that the sentences for violent crimes in Europe (where the Naves and Greens have prevailed) are now often less than ten years imprisonment?
We make a statement as a society by how we punish crimes. When we execute a murderer, we do it to show that certain values must be inviolable and to prove how strongly we believe it, because we do hold life to be precious, and we do not take someone’s life unless it is essential for society’s survival. Not because of deterrence; arguments about whether the death penalty is effective at deterrence muddle the issue. Society’s survival depends on the validity and strength of its values. That is what the death penalty protects.
One of society’s values is that we have a right to be safe in our homes. Another is that we do not abuse children; another yet is that it is wrong to force women and children into violent sexual intercourse. We don’t tolerate cruelty or torture; we believe that no children should have to watch their mother be murdered, and that no human being should die in terror and pain, as in a burning house. Finally, we value life, but not so absolutely that we are willing to weaken our firm societal support for other basic values that make a good and happy life possible. Sometimes, therefore, the death penalty is necessary and right.
We can debate about when. I have no problem with applying it in the Connecticut case based on what I know, but I can respect an argument that it should be reserved for serial killers or mass murderers. I also respect the arguments of anti-death penalty absolutists, as long as they try to make their case without resorting to race-baiting or deception. Unfortunately for them and us, they too frequently regard saving the lives of killers more valuable than their own integrity.