Last October, at the time that two low lives from Connecticut went to trial for their horrific crimes against the Petit family, I wrote this essay in which I argued for capital punishment.
Three years ago, two career criminals, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komiserjevsky, broke into the Connecticut home of Dr. William Petit where, over a span of hours, they pummeled him with baseball bats, reducing him to a bloody pulp. Once the man of the house was out of commission, they proceeded to subject his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and two daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, to unspeakable torture and, eventually, death. Prior to raping and strangling her, Hayes forced Petit’s wife to drive to the bank where he forced her to withdraw cash while his accomplice took his pleasure with her youngest daughter back at her home. After Komiserjevsky had brutalized little Michaela, he bound her to her older sister and ignited them on fire. At some moment during this time frame, Dr. Petit had managed to roll himself over to a neighbor’s house for help. But it was too late. His home, with his two precious daughters inside, had burned to the ground, and his wife, unbeknownst to him, was dead as well.
This past week, Hayes was convicted of his crimes. Komiserjevsky will be going to trial soon. He too will doubtless meet the same guilty verdict visited upon his partner in crime, and when he does, his lawyer will surely fight just as diligently as Hayes’ to persuade the judge to spare their clients’ lives by sentencing them to life behind bars.
If they succeed and our custodians of law and order refuse to exorcise these two demons from the land of the living, the Petits’ as well as all law-abiding citizens will have been treated to an injustice eclipsed only by that which these monsters heaped upon this poor family.
Hayes and Komiserjevsky must be put to death. No one should accept anything less than the timely execution of these bearers of human DNA who chose repeatedly over the span of their miserable lives to divest themselves of every last vestige of humanity. It is nothing less than cruelty to not only remind all of us—to say nothing of Dr. Petit—that Hayes and Komiserjevsky will continue to live, but to make us subsidize this exercise in futility, for it isn’t just the victims of this massacre who were the objects of these villains’ designs, but every member of this (legal) association of citizens that is vulgarly referred to as “society”: that the citizens of the United States are related to one another qua citizens via laws means that the violation of any of these laws is tantamount to an assault against the association itself and, hence, each and every citizen. He who doubts this should consider that no citizen is permitted to “take the law into his own hands,” to exact vengeance against his transgressors.
But when the association is undermined, whether from within or without, as profoundly and resolutely as it can’t but be by crimes as heinous as those committed by the fiends of Connecticut, the only fitting response to the perpetrators is death.
The debate over the death penalty has been raging, literally, for centuries. It would be the height of presumption on my part to think that I could lend to it any original, much less unique, insights; this, however, does not mean that it would be altogether a worthless service to recall the pearls of wisdom that generations of swine continue to trample upon.
Discussions over the death penalty have traditionally centered upon two issues: retribution and deterrence. Proponents of the former argue that capital punishment is justified by the consideration that the executed deserves his fate; the advocates of the latter claim that it is on the basis of the consequences of the death penalty, specifically the consequence of deterring the capital crime of which the executed was deemed guilty, that it can be defended. There have been many variations of each of these positions as well as hybrid theories combining elements of each, it is true, but the opposite poles of retribution and deterrence are the principles constituting the framework within which all discourse over this topic has transpired.
Considerations of deterrence, it has been rightly observed by “retributivists” from Kant onward, are ultimately beside the point: the only question with which we need concern ourselves regarding the moral standing of the death penalty is whether the executed deserves his punishment. Now, to my knowledge, it is in vain that one will search the historical record for a society that hasn’t, at some point, judged capital punishment a morally appropriate reply to some classes of crimes: murder has always been punishable by death, certainly, but until the relatively recent past, as far as the history of nations is concerned, it has never stood alone in any catalogue of capital offenses. In fact, in our own country, as recently as the nineteenth century, murder was but one of over a dozen crimes—including horse thievery!—for which a criminal could be put to death.
The point is that we have the wisdom of generations stretching back to time immemorial to substantiate the judgment that there are indeed at least some acts deserving of death. That the vast majority—virtually all—of the members of the present generation shares this determination is proven by its recognition of their notion of a “just war” and the legitimacy they ascribe to self-defense killings. This nearly universal consensus on the justice of visiting death upon fellow human beings in some circumstances is not, of course, an infallible criterion of truth, but to reject the testimony of millennia and our own intuitions on the grounds that we can’t be absolutely certain of its truth, though not identical to it, is similar to rejecting your conviction that you are awake at this moment on the basis of the possibility that you may be dreaming. With Pascal we can answer the skeptic that “the heart” has its reasons to which reason is and can’t but be oblivious, and with Burke we can say “that in this enlightened age,” we are “bold enough to confess that we are generally men of untaught feelings,” preferring to “cherish” our “old prejudices” precisely “because they are prejudices” that have the sanction of “the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.”
If the opponent of the death penalty, while admitting that under some circumstances a party (whether an individual or collectivity of individuals representing a government) may be deserving of death, denies that a person, like, say, Hayes or Komiserjevsky, could ever deserve death by execution, the burden is upon him to explain this odd position. It is odd because, while we may long to rid ourselves and the planet of our enemies on the battlefield, a person who fights for his country or his god, even if it is a country or a god that we reject and wish to defeat, elicits some measure of respect and perhaps even sympathy; in glaring contrast, criminals (in spite of the media’s attempts to romanticize them) generally, and violent, murderous criminals of the Hayes-Komiserjevsky variety in particular, are beneath contempt. In other words, if enemy combatants are deserving of death, then predators like Hayes and Komiserjevsky are that much more deserving, and if the latter are not deserving of death, than no one is.
Even acknowledging, though, that the death penalty may be justified, we haven’t substantiated that it is the course of action that we should pursue: just because so-and-so deserves such-and-such doesn’t mean that we should give that person what he deserves. The only endorsable reason for resisting the government’s administration of the death penalty to those who deserve it is that innocents may be killed. And this is a weighty objection indeed. It is not, however, nearly as weighty as it is often thought to be.
Absolute certainty may be available in the way of analytic propositions expressing what David Hume called “relations of ideas”—“If Joe is a bachelor, then Joe is an unmarried man,” “All green Martians are colored entities,” etc.—but it promises to forever elude us in every other sphere of life. Man does not live by logical certainty, as it were. In spite of centuries’ worth of attempts on the part of Rationalists of various sorts to change this, it remains as true today as it ever has. He who waits for absolute certainty before he acts never acts.
Thus, that there always remains the possibility that an innocent person will be executed, though regrettable, is emphatically not the decisive objection against the death penalty that it is typically depicted as being. In fact, it is far from it. Furthermore, given our criminal justice system’s appeal procedures and the enormous advances in DNA testing, this possibility has diminished to the point of being negligible.
Finally, many of today’s apologists for capital punishment argue for it only as a response to one crime: murder. To this line the objection has been raised that in order to be consistent, such proponents should favor, say, burning down the homes of arsonists, abducting kidnappers, assaulting those convicted of assault charges, and raping rapists. The implication here is that it is at once absurd and arbitrary to insist upon death for murderers just because they unjustly inflicted death upon others.
Surprisingly, I agree with this criticism, for the argument at which it is aimed, embodying, as it does, pseudo-arithmetical reasoning, is rationalistic. Yet it is easily defeated by the single observation that murder has always been classed among capital crimes, not because of any material similarities between murder and execution but, rather, by virtue of the fact that murder is by its very nature grave or heinous. However, what this means for its supporters is that they must favor the death penalty not just for the crime of murder but for all comparably heinous offenses. I have never found the sense in the position affirming capital punishment for a murderer but not, say, for a rapist who beats his victim within an inch of her life, or one who attempts to kill another but fails.
The death penalty is the just response to all heinous crimes.
Lest I be accused of just talking the talk, so to speak, let the reader know that it is with unadulterated honesty that I can say that so pained am I by the fact that oxygen remains available to Hayes and Komiserjevsky that I would rejoice at the invitation to drive to Connecticut from New Jersey to inject them myself with lethal poisons, or tie the nooses around their necks, or fill them with lead as part of a firing squad. I would consider it among the greatest services that I could provide to my fellow citizens, my tribute to justice.
Let there be no mistake about it, though I would be lying if I pretended that I have always honored justice, the conviction with which I argue for the death penalty is born, not, as the enemies of capital punishment insist, of some irrational “blood lust” or desire for “revenge”—if I was thirsty for blood than I should be willing to settle for anyone’s blood, not just that of those found guilty of unspeakable atrocities. And since I have never been within 100 miles of Hayes and Komiserjevsky, much less fallen prey to their devious machinations, there are no transgressions that they have inflicted upon me personally that I have to avenge—but of the union of two intense longings, one for justice and the other for compassion: justice because Hayes and Komiserjevsky deserve nothing less than death and compassion for the Petits’.
It is the enemies of the death penalty, self-declared “abolitionists,” who suffer a deficit of both justice and compassion.
Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.