The XX Factor

The Petit Murders and the Death Penalty

Connecticut is not a bloodthirsty state. We have executed only one person since 1960. But it is no surprise that a jury today voted to impose the death penalty on Steven J. Hayes . He is one of the perpetrators of a triple murder that is truly a suburban nightmare, a crime that I confess I have been ducking coverage of since I moved here two years ago. With an alleged accomplice who has yet to be tried, Hayes went into the home of Dr. William Petit, who lived there with his wife and two daughters. The men beat Petit and tied him up, sexually assaulted his wife and younger daughter, then strangled the mother and lit a fire that killed both girls. Petit staggered out of the house to get help, barely conscious, but could not return in time to save his family. This crime somehow took place in the quiet town of Cheshire, where I took my son for a soccer game on Sunday. It really is a proverbially leafy place of swing sets and rec centers. To think of it as the site of the most terrifying sort of stranger attack is to feel unsafe anywhere.

Dr. Petit sat through Hayes’ trial listening to graphic, horrible testimony about what his wife and daughters endured-testiomony that the judge told the jury today that “no human being should ever have to see.” At one inexplicable low moment , a lawyer for Hayes accused accomplice, Joshua Komisarjevsky, claimed that Petit’s younger daughter had not been raped, even though forensic evidence showed that she had been. Often, I find myself uncertain about the drive for revenge that can set our criminal justice system into motion (even if it’s not supposed to). Not this time. This is the case before which opposition to the death penalty quails unless you are a pure moral absolutist. According to the New York Times , “Dr. Petit slumped in the front row with members of his extended family, watching clear-eyed as the clerk read, ‘death is the appropriate penalty,’ repeatedly from the verdict forms. His father was there, too: someone patted the older man’s back as his eyes filled with tears.” Petit said afterward that “this is a verdict for justice.” The appeals will follow, as they should. But who can argue with him today?