On August 13, 2015, the Supreme Court for the State of Connecticut overturned capital punishment, commuting the sentences of eleven convicts confined to death row, including Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, a pair of home invaders who raped, tortured and murdered Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters, Hayley (17) and Michaela (11) and set fire to the family home in Cheshire, Connecticut, in 2007.
Despite this turn of events, Jennifer’s sister, Cindy Renn, reacted with incredulity.
“I never thought it would happen, that we would see them die, but I always thought that there should be a punishment that fits the crime,” she remarked in an interview with the Hartford Courant. “I don’t think that will ever happen now in this case.”
Indeed, Komisarjevsky and Hayes are guilty of a heinous crime beyond the shadow of a doubt. The two, seen fleeing in a car belonging to Dr. William Petit, the sole survivor of the attack, were spotted by a police helicopter and apprehended one block away from the scene. During the trial, detectives testified that Hayes smelled strongly of gasoline. Komisarjevsky had also captured footage of himself raping Michaela on his mobile smartphone.
Unfortunately, no form of punishment is more fraught with the risk of irrevocable consequences than the death penalty. More often than not, innocent people are wrongfully convicted of capital crimes and subsequently executed, as was the case in 2011 when Troy Davis was executed by lethal injection for the murder of police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia, despite a lack of physical evidence linking him to the crime and the fact that the state Bureau of Investigation found ballistic evidence presented during Davis’ trial to be unreliable.
Though some are exonerated, others are not so lucky, and no wrongfully executed murderer was ever brought back to life by a pardon coming after the fact. In fact, it seems that the best case scenario would be that some of those wrongfully executed would get a proper burial according to their relatives’ wishes, but somehow I imagine that some wouldn’t even get that.
Another problem with capital punishment is the racial disparity surrounding its practice, par for the course in a society with a prejudicial law enforcement, legal and penal infrastructure. A 1990 report by the General Accounting Office surveyed numerous studies of death penalty cases and found that in 82 percent of these studies, race proved to be a major factor in a defendant being charged with a capital crime or being sentenced to death. For example, it was observed that if the murder victim was white, the defendant was more likely to receive a death sentence than if the killer was black.
Even more disturbing, when the apparatus used to put a convict to death fails, the results can be needlessly torturous and gruesome. As such, capital punishment carries the risk of violation of a prisoner’s Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment.
When convicted rapist and murderer Dennis McGuire’s lethal injection was carried out on January 16, 2014, it took twenty-five minutes for the drugs to kill him, and for roughly half that time, he was convulsing and gasping for air. In the case of convicted murderer Clayton Darrell Lockett, executed by lethal injection in Oklahoma on April 29, 2014, his vein collapsed during the proceedings. Though the execution was aborted because not enough drugs were on hand to finish the job, Lockett died of a heart attack shortly afterward.
Because of the injunctions mandated by European government officials and pharmaceutical companies against American penal systems using drugs manufactured in Europe to execute death row inmates and the resulting shortage of these drugs in the United States, Governor Bill Haslam (R-Tenn.) signed legislation on May 22, 2014 allowing for the electric chair to be used as an alternative to lethal injection.
However, Haslam’s idea could not be more mistaken and misguided, since the consequences from a botched electrocution are far messier than that of a failed attempt at lethal injection. When former police officer and convicted murderer Frank J. Coppola was sent to the electric chair in Virginia in 1982, the electrodes attached to his head and leg ignited, badly burning him. The following year in Alabama, John Louis Evans III, sentenced to the electric chair for murdering a Mobile pawnbroker during a robbery, met the same fate.
Many proponents of capital punishment, some of whom call themselves “fiscally responsible Christians,” argue that the cost of executing a convicted murderer is far less than sentencing him or her to life in prison with no possibility for parole. Though the act of putting a criminal to death in and of itself does not cost much, this assertion does not take into account that legal representation for death row defendants costs roughly four times as much as those on trial for lesser crimes or that housing convicts facing execution costs more than double the expense of housing criminals convicted of non-capital crimes. Death penalty cases invariably take longer to resolve, which easily multiplies the cost of personnel hired for the trials.
Therefore, although the use of capital punishment often satisfies the societal need entailing an eye for an eye, the risks and costs are far greater than the actual benefit.
Featured image via WikiMedia