Brutal murders spark death penalty debate

The Petit family Three Petit family members were killed and only the father William survived

Three horrific murders in a wealthy American town have reignited the debate about who - if anyone - deserves the death penalty.

Across a leaf-strewn lawn where a family home once stood, in a comfortable suburb of flapping flags, a memorial garden is the only physical reminder of the terrible crimes of more than four years ago.

Connecticut is not the sort of place you associate with the death penalty. It is not a southern state, where support for capital punishment is firmly entrenched and 73% of American executions occur. It is not a frontier state. It lies within New England, in geography, and perhaps in culture, the closest you get to European sensibilities.

Since the death penalty was re-instated in the US in 1976, Connecticut has executed only one prisoner. In 2011, only 48% of the state's residents said they support the death penalty, far less than the national average of 61%.

But the statistics have become meaningless since a horrific crime in an upscale neighbourhood left residents frightened and outraged. Now, a glance at the New Haven Register or Hartford Courant shows that the argument about the death penalty - once thought to be purely academic in this part of America - is very much alive.

Early one morning in July 2007, two men, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, broke into a house in the town of Cheshire. William Petit, a local doctor, sat sleeping in a chair on the ground floor. His wife Jennifer and his daughters, Hayley and Michaela, lay sleeping upstairs.

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"I hit him in the head with a baseball bat, and he let out this unearthly scream."

Komisarjevsky speaks in a disconnected monotone about the night he and Hayes invaded the Petit family home. The police have released the recording of his confession.

"I just kept hitting him until he quieted down."

Dr Petit was tied up. His wife was forced to withdraw money from her bank. Back home, she was raped by Hayes and then strangled to death. Her 11-year-old daughter, Michaela, was sexually assaulted by Komisarjevsky. Both girls were tied to their beds and left to die as the house was doused in gasoline and set on fire. Petit, who managed to escape and alert the neighbours, survived.

Both men were later found guilty of capital felony, murder and sexual assault. Hayes was sentenced to death last year.

Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes Joshua Komisarjevsky (left) awaits his fate, while Steven Hayes has already been sentenced to death

Paula Calzetta was one of 12 jurors who sent him to death row. Now retired, with 17 years as a probation officer behind her, she speaks thoughtfully and intensely about what she heard and saw during the long weeks of the trial.

"It was so clear cut that these men were evil," she says. "There was evil in that house. Evil lives in this world and it was there that night."

The trial was she says "beyond words". What she saw burnt into her mind, burnt into her soul.

As for the death penalty, for almost six weeks the jury sat and listened to the arguments.

"Intellectually, I know it was the right thing," she says. "Emotionally it's a very hard thing to do. There's really no doubt about who did it, which I think makes it much easier to make a decision about the death penalty, because there was no question it was them."

Soon, a new set of jurors must make a similar decision about Komisarjevsky, who was also convicted on arson charges.

There are, of course, other victims of violent crimes in Connecticut beside the Petit family. Victoria Coward lives with her daughters in New Haven. Her son Tyler was shot and killed the same year as William Petit's family.

At first she wanted vengeance, but then relented. Now she campaigns against capital punishment. Still, the rhetoric about whether certain types of murders are more deserving of the death penalty than others disturbs her.

She respects Dr Petit's desire to see his family's killers die. But she disagrees with those who point to the brutality of the home invasion as justification for the death penalty.

Start Quote

It's not really vengeance, it's just the notion that if someone does something this violent, they should pay the ultimate price”

End Quote John Kissell Connecticut state senator

"It's like torture for people like me," she says. "It's like: 'Well you don't match what Dr Petit has gone through. He lost three people, you lost one, he lives in a suburban area, you live in the inner city.'"

In 2010, Tyler Coward's killer accepted a plea bargain that sentenced him to jail for 40 years, with the possibility of parole after 25 and a half years. That trial took place at the same time as the Petit murders trial, but with much less media attention and fewer calls for the death penalty.

Of the men who committed the Cheshire crime, Ms Coward says: "People tend to say: 'Well that was worse, so you need to die.' It's like saying your son wasn't worth anything, and he was. I had him, I carried him."

The last time the state legislature passed the repeal of the death penalty it was vetoed by the governor. The most recent attempt at repeal failed to get through the legislature. The Petit case has had - and continues to have - a direct impact.

Still, supporters of capital punishment in the state choose their words carefully. There is little in the way of blood-and-thunder rhetoric from State Senator John Kissell, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

Protests in Connecticut The only execution in Connecticut in 35 years took place in 2005 and sparked protests

"It is extremely difficult to be given the death sentence in Connecticut," he says. "You have to have done something really horrifically bad against society, against individuals."

Hayes and Komisarjevsky have, he says, focused people's attention. "It's not really vengeance, it's just the notion that if someone does something this violent, this offensive, they should pay the ultimate price, which is the loss of their own life."

It is, says the senator, one way of guaranteeing that they will never commit crime again.

Steven Hayes is awaiting execution by lethal injection. Joshua Komisarjevsky's fate will be decided in the next few weeks.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    I support the death penalty, the purpose of executing the death penalty is not revenge! It's to protect others from potential criminals in the future by setting the current murderers as example, what murders see today is someone who is sentenced to life that spends his time in a cell where he doesn't have to work for his meal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    " If you can explain capital "punishment" to a child, why we kill people because killing is so wrong, then I'll listen. Since no one can, I say - separate prey from predator."-- Catherin

    You say separate the predator from the prey but at the same time lump them together by ignoring WHY each might have been killed. Is murdering an innocent person really akin to executing an axe murderer?

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    A number of posters have suggested reasons for the death penalty in this case: revenge, economically cheaper/more expensive, deterrence (I will ignore the trite argument "they won't do it again"). Sentencing theory also includes rehabilitation.

    Yet these two men need to know exactly how society feels about what they have done. IMHO the purpose in this case would be punishment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    By the phrase "European sensibilities", do you mean the overt act of displaying more concern for the offender than the victim(s)? Yeah, that sounds like Connecticut alright.

    I'm always amazed by how much the British are obsessed with America. Always,naturally, claiming the high moral ground. Kinda a way. In other ways, highly comical.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Whatever the circumstances, there is never any justification for state-sanctioned murder. The rest of the Western world realised this 50 years ago. It's time for the US to bring its penal policy into at least the 20th century (the 21st would be asking too much) and abolish the death penalty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    If it's true that some crimes are just so heinous they scream for death as justice, why killing? Why not an island in the tradition of Botany Bay? State-sanctioned murder cannot possibly survive in an evolved society. If you can explain capital "punishment" to a child, why we kill people because killing is so wrong, then I'll listen. Since no one can, I say - separate prey from predator.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Is it so very difficult to check even simple facts ? The capital of Connecticut is Hartford, not New Haven.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    So if these guys are not executed, what should the society do to them? Keep them alive and well? How about nursing cancer to grow well instead of doing a radical surgery? If the society is too weak to do what is right, that is the death knell of it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    The deterrence justification is a fiction. The evidence suggests that the DP doesn't actually deter violent crimes. The economic justification is also a fiction. It costs more to execute someone than to imprison him/her for life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    13 - punishment is a deterrent. If no punishment existed then there would be no deterrent and people would ignore all laws they disagreed with. The result would be chaos.
    The question with the death penalty is whether it is the correct deterrent for the crime or not (depends on where you live as this is a social determination)

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Everyone agrees "eye for an eye" is barbaric, so why when a man takes life, is it okay to take his life? The answer, "because it's life" doesn't work. That argument rests on the notion that life is sacred, or of supreme value, and if life is sacred or supreme, nothing is more valuable than life, even the proponent's misguided notions of "justice."

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Today we read of 53 found executed in Sirte - by the 'good guys' - and so we call for an inquiry, forgetting that "an eye for an eye" is the literal law of Islam. A boy hacked to death with an axe in Austrailia, captured on cell phone video... and this horrific crime in Connecticut...

    We should be VERY sure that we have the right person(s), and all the facts - but true monsters should die...

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I have concerns about the death-penalty getting the wrong man, but I do think there are certain crimes that deserve it. I believe that any 'contract' killing (ie where someone is paid to kill someone else) should automatically bring the death penalty
    I disagree with Pieter about death being a deterrent. All punishment is a deterrent in that do this then you will suffer these consequences

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    12. But let them not sit on Death Row for 10+ years in hope of reprieve.

    Use the old British system: "after three clear Sundays". Let them have just three weeks to reflect on their crimes and the terror of knowing for certain that in just 21 days they will die. This is the punishment, not the injection.

    Let them contemplate the abyss and what will happen to them once they die into it ....

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I saw a post saying, "I have never heard a rational defense for the death penalty." How about this, rather than giving a violent murderer a chance to kill in the future, be it ten or one-hundred years, we end that cycle. Deny the possibility. We do not allow them to live off of us for the rest of their natural lives, we do not feed, clothe, or house them. Once we know you are a murderer,you die.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    The death penalty is in principle acceptable - the right to life can be forfeit for some actions.

    Thankfully, no one is pretending this debate is about deterrence - it's about revenge and punishment.

    But do we really want to entrench the principle that it's OK to kill not in urgent self-defence but because it's OK to kill and we can?

    Might it be better to forego the punishment and revenge?

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    In principle, I have been against capital punishment all my life. No man has the right to take another life, judicial or otherwise.

    Yet the details of this case so horrify me, if ever there was a case for it, this is it. The crimes were appallingly violent and brutal, confessed, supported by DNA; no doubt whatsoever of their guilt

    Revenge should not be the motive. Punishment: pure & simple

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Here is a defense of the death penalty: no chance for a murderer to be a repeat offender. Let's not waste our resources on people who will have no chance to be contributing members of society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    In a sense the death penalty is not punishment enough for the brutal crimes committed. Other than some sort of daily torture for a year or two and then the death penalty would be more fitting. Death alone is nothing as a punishment because we all die!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I can only say, as an American who's lost a loved one to murder, the conflict of emotion is strong. I would add that, since half the people of this country agree with the death "penalty" then why bother with injections, we should accept what's in our hearts - it's vengeance, it's pay-back, it's "here's yours" it's "you asked for it pal" and it's time we faced the truth of State-sanctioned murder.


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