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October 28, 2007

A Matter Of Death

I hold a certain ambivalence towards the death penalty. On the one hand, I have deep concern over its use upon the innocent. At the same time, I recognize that some crimes are, by their very nature, so heinous that no other penalty is adequate to express society's outrage. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that some offenders -- and not just murderers -- clearly forfeit the presumption of a right to life by the very nature of their crimes.

And that is where I come to this case, which transfixed the nation this summer, and the community of faith that struggles to deal with it.

The United Methodist Church here is the kind of politically active place where parishioners take to the pulpit to discuss poverty in El Salvador and refugees living in Meriden. But few issues engage its passions as much as the death penalty.

The last three pastors were opponents of capital punishment. Church-sponsored adult education classes promote the idea of “restorative justice,” advocating rehabilitation over punishment. Two years ago, congregants attended midnight vigils outside the prison where Connecticut executed a prisoner for the first time in 45 years.

The problem, of course, with the whole "restorative justice" concept is that there is no real way of making whole the victims and the community in certain cases. And that is precisely the problem in the case at hand.

So it might have been expected that United Methodist congregants would speak out forcefully when a brutal triple murder here in July led to tough new policies against violent criminals across the state and a pledge from prosecutors to seek capital punishment against the defendants.

But the congregation has been largely quiet, not out of indifference, but anguish: the victims were popular and active members of the church — Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 48, and her two daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11. On July 23, two men broke into the family’s home. Mrs. Hawke-Petit was strangled and her daughters died in a fire that the police say was set by the intruders.

The killings have not just stunned the congregation, they have spurred quiet debate about how it should respond to the crime and whether it should publicly oppose the punishment that may follow. It has also caused a few to reassess how they feel about the punishment.

Yeah -- the liberal "principle" at work here gets really hard to stand by when it hits too close to home. All of a sudden one is forced to reexamine what one believes when the hard, cold reality and unspeakable evil intrudes. Sure, ideas like "restorative justice" sound great in theory -- especially when one talks about property crime -- but it doesn't work when you have three dead loved ones to deal with. They are not going to be restored.

At the heart of the debate are questions about how Mrs. Hawke-Petit’s husband, William, who survived the attack, feels about the death penalty. The indications are conflicting. Sensitive to his grief, many of the church’s most ardent capital punishment opponents have been hesitant to speak against the capital charges brought against two parolees charged with the killings, Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes.

“I’m treading lightly out of respect for the Petit family,” said the church’s pastor, the Rev. Stephen E. Volpe, a death penalty opponent. “I do not feel we, in this church, ought to make this tragedy the rallying cry for anything at this point.”

Yeah -- but if this was some other family from some other church, would you be more than willing to do so? If so, then that is either a sign that you are unwilling to stand by your principles when they are inconvenient, or that you know that they are wrong but unwilling to own up to that reality. After all, if you really believe that your position is coming out of the Gospel, then you need to proclaim it when it is hard, not just when it is easy -- unless it is less about the Gospel and more about a political agenda sugar-coated with a veneer of religion.

At the same time, there is a widespread belief that Mrs. Hawke-Petit was opposed to capital punishment. Having her killers put to death would be the last thing she would want, many say.

“It’d be so dishonoring to her life to do anything violent in her name,” said Carolyn Hardin Engelhardt, a church member who is the director of the ministry resource center at Yale Divinity School Library. “That’s not the kind of person she was.”

At least two church members say they think that Mrs. Hawke-Petit endorsed an anti-death-penalty document known as a Declaration of Life. The declaration states a person’s opposition to capital punishment and asks that prosecutors, in the event of the person’s own death in a capital crime, do not seek the death penalty. The documents have been signed by thousands of people, including Mario M. Cuomo, the former governor of New York, and Martin Sheen, the actor.

“She was a nurse and she would not cause harm to anyone,” said Lucy Earley, a congregant who notarized at least a dozen declarations during an appeal at the church and said she thought Mrs. Hawke-Petit’s was among them.

Declarations of Life are often kept with a person’s will or other important papers; sometimes they are filed with registries. But it could not be independently determined whether Mrs. Hawke-Petit had signed one. Although the family’s home was heavily damaged in the fire and no independent copies have surfaced, death penalty opponents both inside and outside the church have kept trying to find one. A clear indication that Mrs. Hawke-Petit rejected capital punishment could help them mobilize, they say, not only in the Cheshire case but also on behalf of the nine people on Connecticut’s death row in Somers.

The opponents also say that a signed declaration by Mrs. Hawke-Petit opposing capital punishment could help counter the public outrage to the killings — outrage that has pressured state officials to suspend parole for violent criminals.

I'm about to make a really terrible sounding statement -- the views of Jennifer Hawke-Petit (or her daughters, or her surviving husband and other family members) on the death penalty are at best tangentially relevant to the eventual sentence given in this case. When prosecuted, the case will not be prosecuted in her name -- it will be prosecuted in the name of the people of the state of Connecticut, recognizing that the offense committed was not just against her and her family, but also against society as a whole. Indeed, the question is what do the people of Connecticut view as an appropriate punishment for the horrific events that took place this summer -- views quite clearly expressed in support of the death penalty.

But I put a different question to those anti-death penalty ideologues who urge that the victim's views should be the overriding factor in determining the sentence for murder -- if a victim left behind some clear demand for the execution of their murderers, would you be equally passionate in demanding that execution be the only option at sentencing? If their clearly articulated religious views supported the death penalty, would you insist that they be the guiding force in this case? Or would you argue, in typical liberal fashion, that your views are so much more compassionate and humane and advance than theirs and that your views must therefore override the wishes of the victim? You don't need to answer -- we already know.

Still, if proof of Mrs. Hawke-Petit’s sentiments did surface, it would have little standing in court, lawyers and prosecutors say.

“Our job is to enforce the law no matter who the victim is or what the victim’s religious beliefs are,” said John A. Connelly, a veteran prosecutor in Waterbury who is not involved in the Cheshire case. “If you started imposing the death penalty based on what the victim’s family felt, it would truly become arbitrary and capricious.”

Michael Dearington, the state’s attorney who is prosecuting the suspects in the Petit killings, said he did not know whether Mrs. Hawke-Petit had signed a Declaration of Life. Asked if he knew Dr. Petit’s views on the death penalty, he replied, “I have a no comment on that.”

Interestingly enough, the article goes on to indicate that Dr. Petit is in support of the death penalty in this case. That creates an interesting problem for those who talk about "restorative justice", because it appears that the one surviving victim may have a very different view of what it will take for justice to be done. And while there is an anecdote regarding the use of the Prayer of St. Francis at the memorial service for his murdered family, and his struggle with the word pardon, let us not forget that forgiveness and justice are not mutually exclusive concepts in the Christian tradition, or in the American legal system.

I'm going to stop the fisking at this point. I do so for two reasons.

1) Much of the rest of the article constitutes a rehashing of the same issues raised earlier. and a focus on some genuinely good and decent works of the congregation. Frankly, I admire much of what is reported here, and do not doubt the people of the congregation are men and women of faith seeking to follow the Gospel. While I disagree with them on some points (in particular the death penalty issue), I respect them and mean nothing in the way of disrespect for them in anything I have written.

2) It hits too close to home. Jennifer Hawke-Petit, you see, was a friend of my wife's when they were growing up in Pennsylvania. She attended the couple's wedding, and the baptism of Hayley, their oldest daughter. She worked for Jennifer Hawke-Petit's father for a time. The events of this summer caused much anguish around our home, and much talk the victims and their families. I choose to honor those things revealed by not speaking of them more publicly in this forum.

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