Petit Murders and the Death Penalty

It's my hope that this country can leave its primitive, punitive approach to criminal justice behind in favor of a more enlightened one, one that retains some of the mercy I hear in my friend's final words
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Recently a former student, Holly, emailed me a link to the brief statement Cheshire, CT endocrinologist Bill Petit delivered moments after a jury sentenced Steven Hayes to death for brutally attacking Petit and then assaulting and killing his wife and their two young daughters. Before studying with me at St. Lawrence University, Holly had been Hailey Petit's classmate at Miss Porter's School, the boarding school for girls in Farmington.

Holly also knew that my book Green Fields; Crime, Punishment, and a Boyhood Between (UNO Press/The Engaged Writers Series), about the 1979 murder of my elementary classmate, Cary Ann Medlin, and the execution of her killer, Robert Glen Coe, twenty years later, was due out the same week. I sometimes spoke of the book in the classes Holly took with me and of my opposition to the death penalty, and Holly countered that she endured a similar experience, the murder of a classmate, but believed the death penalty was justifiable. I appreciated how Holly's opinion challenged me to explore why I felt the way I did, and I admired her loyalty to her friend.

There was much to admire, too, in what Bill Petit said when the sentence came down: his rejection of the concept of "closure" for murder victims' families, and his acknowledgment that an execution would not bring his family back (reasons, I've always thought, not to go through with it). Cases like the Petit and Medlin murders test the resolve of even the most passionate death penalty opponents. The crimes are senseless and brutal, the victims and the families they leave behind sympathetic. The offenders are men with lengthy criminal records for whom prior prison terms seem to have effected no rehabilitation, and who exhibit little potential for rehabilitation now.

Still, I remain categorically opposed to the death penalty. Abolitionists argue that the death penalty is inefficient (a life sentence costs less than an execution), that it is applied capriciously (poor men and black men are executed at a far higher rate than middle class white offenders), that a flawed system has placed too many innocent men on death row. The Innocence Project regularly identifies wrongly-convicted men all around the country, and considering the current lack of public confidence in the government's ability to get anything right, do we really want to leave capital punishment in its hands?

For me, it's a moral issue and not a matter of accounting anyway. I oppose executions because of what they ultimately suggest about us, not offenders or victims or families but about the society at large. I am afraid we indulge something base in ourselves when we do such a thing. "Whenever any American's life is taken by another American unnecessarily, whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of the an attack of violence or in response to violence," Robert Kennedy told a group in Cleveland after the Martin Luther King assassination, "the whole nation is degraded." I believe that.

Dr. Petit said the district attorney told him that if there was ever a case where the death penalty ought to be applied, his was it. Tennesseeans who clamored for Robert Glen Coe's execution back in 1999 used the same phrase to refer to my friend's murder. What I learned writing Green Fields was that this was where death penalty advocates and I disagreed: I could not imagine a single case in which, even if "justified" on the simplest, "eye for an eye" level, an execution would not demean us. Bill Petit argued that the men who'd invaded his home and murdered his family needed to be executed because a civilized society needs a means to hold the most depraved offenders accountable, but I can't accept state-sponsored killing as an indicator of a highly civilized society.

Robert Glen Coe reported in his confession that just before he stabbed little Cary Medlin, she told him "Jesus still loves you." Cary's family seized on this as proof of her great faith, but I've always felt the spirit of that final utterance, the great quality of mercy in it, has been lost on those of us who survive Cary. "Too often we honor bluster and swagger and the wielders of force," RFK told that Cleveland crowd.

It's my hope that this country can leave its primitive, punitive approach to criminal justice behind in favor of a more enlightened one, one that retains some of the mercy I hear in my friend's final words, a restorative approach that heals and reintegrates victims and families and offenders alike. "The defendant faces far more serious punishment from the Lord than he can ever face from mankind," Bill Petit told those gathered on the courthouse steps. I am content to leave ultimate punishments to Dr. Petit's God.

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