Ethics Dunces: Connecticut Lawmakers

Hayes and Komisarjevky, the Cheshire, Conn. killers

Good thinking, Connecticut!

  • With home invaders/multiple murderers/ rapists/sadists Stephen Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky duly convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection, the state legislature passed, and the Governor signed, a law making Connecticut the latest state to ban the death penalty.
  • Since a majority of the public, the legislators and virtually everyone aware of the horrendous facts of the infamous home invasion murders that Hayes and Komisarjevsky unquestionably committed think these two creatures deserve to die, the legislators made the law prospective only, meaning that it only would apply to those convicted of future crimes.
  • Despite the legislative intent, the obvious Equal Protection challenge to a law that treats two sets of citizens—current convicted murderers and future ones—differently may save the lives of Hayes and  Komisarjevsky,  the other 9 residents of the state’s death row, and such likely future residents as Richard S. Roszkowski, convicted of murder for gunning down a man, woman and 9-year-old girl on Sept. 7, 2006, but still facing a second death penalty phase trial, after his first one was overturned on a technicality.

It would have shown integrity for Connecticut lawmakers to have the courage of its supposed convictions, and to abolish the death penalty while having in its custody as perfect candidates for capital punishment as have ever been captured, Stephen Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky. In case you have forgotten the details of their June 23, 2007 invasion of the Cheshire, Conn. home of the Petit family, or were lucky enough to miss that horror story until now, here are is a mercifully brief summary.

Planning to rob the home of the Petit family, the two broke into their house and found William Petit sleeping on a couch on the porch. Komisarjevsky bludgeoned him with a baseball bat and tied him up, leaving him bleeding and semi-conscious in the basement. The two men locked his wife, Jennifer, and their daughters, Hayley, 17, and Micheala, 11, in their bedrooms, as the invaders gathered money and valuables. Then Hayes forced Jennifer, at gunpoint, to withdraw $15,000 from the family’s bank account. After they returned from the bank, Komisarjevsky raped Michaela, the 11-year-old, and Hayes to raped her mother. William Petit managed to escape the basement while this was happening, and crawled to a neighbor’s house to get help. Hayes strangled Mrs. Petit, poured gasoline on her corpse, around the house, and over both daughters, who were tied to their beds. Then Hayes and Komisarjevsky set everything aflame.  17-year-old Hayley and 11-year-old Michaela died from smoke inhalation before they could burn to death.

If legislators and Connecticut Governor Malloy really believe that the death penalty is morally wrong, then they must believe it is morally wrong to execute Hayes and Komisarjevsky, and should be willing to make their ban apply to them as well. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of voters want to see these two monsters executed, as well they should. The procedural arguments against the death penalty don’t apply to these men: there is no question about their guilt, and racial bias was not involved, for both men are white. If capital punishment is wrong, then it is wrong, and the ban should apply to everyone. If it is appropriate in extreme cases like Hayes and Komisarjevsky, then it should not be banned. Banning it prospectively but not retroactively, however, is incoherent, cowardly, and quite possibly deceptive. It seems concievable that the proponents of the bill crafted a version that they knew would be read by the courts as requiring all death row inmates to be spared, including the Cheshire home invaders. They were able to trick those who supported the bill but wanted to see Hayes and Komisarjevsky die first ( that is to say, morons, and there are lot of them, who say they believe capital punishment is immoral but also believe that the worst cases deserve to be executed anyway—logically incompatible beliefs). After the courts strike down the prospective-crimes-only provision as unconstitutional, these legsilators will tell angry voters that it isn’t their fault that Hayes and Komisarjevsky cheated the executioner…it’s the fault of those damn judges who always foil the will of duly elected representatives!  (Wait…where have we heard that argument before?)

To summarize:

1. I believe an absolutist position that capital punishment is always immoral and unethical is mistaken, as well as corrupting to society. Hayes and Komisarjevsky are excellent illustrations of why this is so. No matter how narrowly capital punishment laws are drawn or applied, society must always have an ultimate penalty for the very worst human behavior, from which all other punishment can be compared and calibrated. If the Cheshire home invasion only warrants life imprisonment, then a routine premeditated multiple murder must certainly demand less punishment, until, like many European nations, we are letting murderers free after fewer than ten years in jail. Even if such cases appear but once in a decade, there must be some criminal conduct that society holds is so heinous and depraved that a citizen forfeits the right to life and the right to have society pay to continue that life.

2. If, however, a state decides otherwise—a defensible position, though I oppose it—that the death penalty is absolutely immoral, then it is unethical as well as incomprehensible to execute any human beings, even the likes of  Hayes and Komisarjevsky, after passing a law that declares this is something the state must never do on moral grounds.

3. Voting for such a law, meanwhile, if one believes that there are individuals, like Hayes and Komisarjevsky, whose crimes dictate that they should be executed, is incompetent and intellectually indefensible.

4. Passing a prospective-only death penalty ban while knowing that such a limitation is likely to be rejected by the courts, as a ploy so that voters won’t hold lawmakers responsible for saving the miserable lives of Hayes and Komisarjevsky, is dishonest and cowardly.

No matter how you look at Connecticut’s capital punishment ban, it is either irresponsible, incompetent, lacks integrity, or all three.

________________________________________________________

Spark: “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!” (NPR)

Sources:

Graphics: Bonnie’s Blog of Crime

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

18 thoughts on “Ethics Dunces: Connecticut Lawmakers

  1. Despite the legislative intent, the obvious Equal Protection challenge to a law that treats two sets of citizens—current convicted murderers and future ones—differently may save the lives of Hayes and Komisarjevsky, the other 9 residents of the state’s death row, and such likely future residents as Richard S. Roszkowski, convicted of murder for gunning down a man, woman and 9-year-old girl on Sept. 7, 2006, but still facing a second death penalty phase trial, after his first one was overturned on a technicality.

    As for the equal protection challenge, such a classification will likely require only rational basis scrutiny, and very few laws get ultimately struck down under rational basis.

    Has there ever been a court case where retroactive commutations were ordered by a court whenever the sentence for a crime is reduced by statute?

    Even if such cases appear but once in a decade, there must be some criminal conduct that society holds is so heinous and depraved that a citizen forfeits the right to life and the right to have society pay to continue that life.

    Aside from this case, one could cite the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanking, and 9/11 as reasons to keep the death penalty.

    Yes, the death penalty as practiced by America is expensive. But this expense is not inherent in the death penalty. After all, the Nuremberg executions in 1945-1946 certainly did not cost millions of dollars.

    And the probability of an innocent person being executed is very low; the last confirmed case was in 1927. By sharp contrast, since 1996 I can name six cases of innocent people wrongfully shot to death by police. (And yes, we can adopt rules of engagement to make such events rare, such as forbidding police to use their weapons unless and until the belligerent uses force first.)

    • 1.As for the equal protection challenge, such a classification will likely require only rational basis scrutiny, and very few laws get ultimately struck down under rational basis.
      Don’t underestimate the ability of Conn. courts to find ways to block executions.

      2. Aside from this case, one could cite the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanking, and 9/11 as reasons to keep the death penalty.
      Also Ted Bundy, the BTK killer, and the DC Snipers.

      3.Yes, the death penalty as practiced by America is expensive. But this expense is not inherent in the death penalty. After all, the Nuremberg executions in 1945-1946 certainly did not cost millions of dollars.
      The opponents of the death penalty have made it expensive, and then argue that expense is the reason to ban it. Don’t get me started…

      4. The recent Post study of proprietorial misconduct with hair evidence found one case of near-certain innocence where a man was executed, and nobody seriously doubts that there have been others. Lack of perfection in itself is not an argument against capital punishment.

      • Im sorry Jack but lack of perfection is the best reason to argue against the death penalty . I personally am against te death penalty except in the most horrendous of crimes but have a major problem with thought an innocent person could executed.

        • I personally am against te death penalty except in the most horrendous of crimes but have a major problem with thought an innocent person could executed.

          More so than innocent persons being wrongfully shot to death by police, or dying in car crashes?

          If it was illegal for police to use their weapons except on those who attack first, the number of innocents wrongfully shot to death by police would plummet.

          Walter E. Williams pointed out that “cars could be produced such that occupants could survive unscathed in a 50-mph head-on collision”

          Then of course there is Fat Man and Little Boy.

          What makes executions different from police shootings, car crashes, Fat Man, and Little Boy?

          • Well, put it this way; a murderer is not executed, he’ll still be imprisoned for life, with only a relatively small chance of escaping.

            On the other hand, if a policeman doesn’t fire his gun, he might have had a good chance of letting himself or someone else be killed.

            We accept the risk of car crashes in exchange for their substantive economic benefits, which presumably save more lives in the long run.

            We bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki because not doing so would have likely lead to more dead Americans, Japanese, Chinese, Englishmen, Indians, Russians, etc.

          • More so than innocent persons being wrongfully shot to death by police, or dying in car crashes?

            Those are wrong, too. Their continued wrongness does not weight on this situation.

              • We have different rules for the rule of law because of the awesome power it has. Police officer shootings should be held to pretty much the same standard for the same reason.

  2. Although the circumstances are different… the CA supreme court in 1972 declared the death penalty unconstitutional, thus commuting all those on death row there to life in prison sentences. Thus Charles Manson continues to consume oxygen.

    The voters subsequently passed a law establishing a death penalty law that met the criteria set in that 1972 decision, so today’s eligible killers again face the death penalty. Opponents of the DP continue to bring up issues that have the effect of stalling executions, and as Jack said then use the delays and legal costs they cause as reasons to abolish the DP.

    For nostalgia buffs, Carroll Chessman was the last person in CA to be executed for a crime that did not involve the death of the victim (rape;1960).

    There are grounds for disputing the date of the last wrongful execution noted by the earlier poster; there are some that are suspect that have happened more recently. Since the DP is something that doesn’t give us a do-over, so we must only execute those where there is no doubt as to guilt.

    • There are grounds for disputing the date of the last wrongful execution noted by the earlier poster; there are some that are suspect that have happened more recently. Since the DP is something that doesn’t give us a do-over, so we must only execute those where there is no doubt as to guilt.

      Possible, but not proven like the 1927 case I cited. Of course, even if there was a more recent such case, this would mean there is a gap of over eighty years between such events.

      By sharp contrast, fatal car crashes are much more common; fatal car crashes happen a lot more often than once every eighty years. And cars can be designed to withstand a head-on collision at 50 MPH. And I explained that forbidding law enforcement from using their weapons unless attacked first would obviate the six cases of wrongful police shootings I cited.

      If we can tolerate innocents dying in car crashes and getting shot to death by police…

    • I was thinking immediately (of course!) of Charles Manson. Every day he lives and breathes is a spit in the eye of every Californian. Sharon Tate’s sister has had to make his continual imprisionment her life’s work. No “closure” for her. And now Tex Watson is coming up for a parole hearing. One might also ask how much it’s cost the taxpayers to keep these creatures behind bars in a functionless existence. Bullets are still cheap enough and rope even more so.

    • the CA supreme court in 1972 declared the death penalty unconstitutional, thus commuting all those on death row there to life in prison sentences.

      What I do not understand is why Charles Manson gets parole hearings.

      Would it not have been commuted to life without parole?

  3. Well, the death penalty is a complicated issue. Overall, from the standpoint of the whole system, it’s a net negative. As to Hayes and Komisarjevky, I think that in a lot of these cases you’re doing these guys a favor by giving them the easy way out. After all, everyone dies, so you’re not really giving them any more of a “punishment” then we all get. All you’re doing is freeing them from some decades of pretty unpleasant incarceration. (In cases such as Hayes and Komisarjevky, I don’t see any reason why some fairly onerous conditions such as extensive solitary confinement, or hard labor, or whatever, can’t be put into play.)

    • But as Jeff Jacoby pointed out

      But in fact, murderers are never locked up for life. When was the last time a murderer died of old age in a Massachusetts prison? I asked the Department of Correction, and it couldn’t find one example. Willie Horton’s 1974 sentence for an exceedingly vicious murder was, quote-unquote, “life with no possibility of parole.” By 1986 he was free to rape a Maryland woman and torture her fiance.

  4. The reason I’m against the death penalty under almost all circumstances is because of the effect on the executioner.

    I am in favour of immurement though. Leave them with 100 years supply of food, water and air, brick them up and forget them. By all means leave books or other entertainment devices. Just no contact with the outside world ever again.

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