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Editor's Notebook: Death Penalty Opponents Offering False Arguments

October 16, 2011 by John Rook

Joshua Komisarjevsky is a murderer.
We all knew that. We knew it before his trial began, before the jury heard its first piece of evidence, before they ever began deliberations, and before they rendered a verdict.
To only the most naïve was Komisarjevsky's guilt ever in question.
Yet, because he had not yet been tried and convicted, every sentence begun in regard to Komisarjevsky had to include the word “alleged” before murderer.
Now, with the jury coming to a decision, finding the man guilty on all 17 counts against him, no such need for decorum exists. He is a murderer, responsible for the heinous killings that ended the lives of three Cheshire women well before their time. No more pretense is needed. No more wild fantasies about “not wanting anyone to die,” should be repeated. He is guilty. He is a killer.
The question is, will Komisarjevsky receive the death penalty? That question is far less simple to answer than guilt or innocence. One can believe Komisarjevsky is a killer and not that he deserves the death penalty.
That's because, when it comes to capital punishment, it isn't about the law or evidence or testimony: it's about moral viewpoints. No one can now question whether Komisarjevsky is guilty of his crimes. But, does every juror charged with deciding his fate believe the death penalty is acceptable?
The issue is one that evokes a tremendous amount of emotion on both sides. Yet there are those who seem to be uncomfortable admitting the truth about the debate: that it comes down to a personal choice.
Since the Komisarjevsky verdict was rendered, many have offered their opinions on the matter, and a few popular arguments against capital punishment have popped up.
The first deals directly with Komisarjevsky himself. The defense made it a point to paint their client as a broken man who had been sexually abused as a child. That, they claim, set the wheels in motion for a life of crime, one that eventually led to the Petit home on July 23, 2007.
Because of that trauma, Komisarjevsky should be spared death, the reasoning goes.
But, what about all the other people who have experienced similar trauma in their lives? What of the millions of men and women who have unfortunately experienced sexual and physical abuse at the hands of adults? Are all of them criminals? Are all of them murderers? Of course not. So, even if Komisarjevsky were actually sexually abused as a child (an unsubstantiated claim that emanates solely from him) it doesn't mean he was set down this depraved path with no recourse to turn back. To say as much would be to ignore the good, decent, moral people who routinely overcome all sorts of tragedy in their lives; events that could, if allowed, offer an excuse for immoral actions. Instead, these people strive to grow and become better. Komisarjevsky chose to become a violent man with no regard for other human beings.
That was his choice. He wasn't driven to it.
The second argument was offered up in an editorial in The Hartford Courant on Friday. In the piece, the paper stated that, since the death penalty in Connecticut is a “joke,” it shouldn't be on the books any longer. The point of the argument is to say that death row inmates are not put to death anyway, except under the rare circumstance that they request the penalty be carried out, such as in the case of serial killer Michael Ross, the last man to be executed in the state. So, with no real intent to execute, keeping death row open just wastes taxpayer dollars.
The premise of the Courant's editorial is sound. The state's death penalty is, at this point, in name only. It is highly unlikely that either Steven Hayes or Komisarjevsky will ever be executed. Instead, they will go through decades of appeals and spend their years wasting away in their cells.
But, the solution to this problem isn't necessarily ridding the state of the death penalty. The Courant even admits that the state legislature could untangle the legal cobwebs that surround capital punishment cases and make the appeals process more efficient. However, the editorial then does what so many seem willing to do in cases like this: it throws its hands in the air and says “but that will never happen.”
Why not? Why do we continue to expect so little of what is right and decent from our elected officials? How have we gotten to a place where we decide an issue as important as capital punishment based on the notion that our representatives won't put their political interests aside?
The state legislature shouldn't be rewarded for creating and then supporting an ineffectual legal system when it comes to capital punishment, and then using that as the very excuse for its dissolution. That shouldn't be acceptable.
The final argument that has been championed is that capital punishment doesn't dissuade anyone from committing crimes and, in fact, only prolongs the suffering of the victim's family. Again, this is a dubious claim, at best.
The truth is, studies on both sides of the issue have offered dissenting opinions. Some have pointed to no correlation between capital punishment and a decrease in crime. Others have suggested that the death penalty does prevent crime on a wide spread scale.
Here's the point: none of these studies mean a darn thing. How can you possibly ever know whether capital punishment reduces crime? Is there anyone in America that would admit to a study group, “Yeah, I was perfectly willing to kill that shopkeeper, but I knew the state had the death penalty, so I decided against it.”
Without any verifiable evidence when it comes to motivations, one is left simply with hard data. Yet, data only tells us what did happen, not what might have happened. If a particular state with the death penalty has X amount of murders, we have no idea how many murders or capital felonies might have been avoided because the death penalty was on the books. Was it one, 100, 1,000? Was it zero? Who knows. There is no way.
So, anyone who says that the death penalty doesn't dissuade those from committing murder are simply offering up a guess, no better or worse than someone who guesses that it does.
Common sense would dictate that, the harsher the penalties, the more likely one is to prevent some crimes from occurring. However, no one knows for sure.
And as far as family pain is concerned, again there are two schools of thought. Some family members of murder victims have worked to end the death penalty. Others, like Dr. William Petit, have become strong advocates for it. Do legislators really feel comfortable telling Dr. Petit that his feelings on the matter count less than those fighting against capital punishment? Is his belief that the death penalty will provide the justice he desires in his long, drawn-out tragedy less credible?
Capital punishment is a belief based on one's own spiritual or moral beliefs. Some feel that the state simply should not be in the business of death, and that such matters should be left solely to God or nature. Others believe that those who participate in an act depraved enough to warrant a death penalty sentence from a jury of his or her peers has forfeited the rights of common man. It is a worthy debate to have, since it goes to the core of what we are as a society.
However, offering up false arguments does no one any good. If those arguing against capital punishment cannot argue their side based on their true motivations, then how concrete can their arguments be to begin with?

Comments

Death penalty morally wrong

October 24, 2011 by Mountains (not verified), 2 years 47 weeks ago
Comment: 1728

The Petit murders sickened me, and I can't fathom the desolation that Dr. Petit feels over the loss of his family. I also have no sympathy for the murderers. I also think the state shouldn't be in the business of killing its own citizens. The state, acting ostensibly in the interests of its citizens, would be guilty of premeditated murder -- just like the murderers themselves -- and it would thus relinquish any claim to the moral high ground. It doesn't matter what your motives are. Everyone has lost in this case -- from the destruction of a beautiful family, to the fear instilled in a community, to the cold reminder that personal safety is sometimes a matter of chance or bad luck and not something one can always control. From a practical standpoint, you could argue that putting someone away for life would be an even greater punishment than death -- condemned to living out the remainder of his life behind bars, having to watch your back at all times for being a child killer, having daily reminders of what you did to get there. If you're a Christian, your hope is that they turn to God, since she doesn't view any of her creations as being beyond redemption. But in this case, I'd be more than happy to subsidize their lifetime incarceration.

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