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October 28, 2007

Fascinating NY Times piece on victims, religion and the death penalty

On the front page of my Sunday New York Times is this fascinating article about the reactions of a Connecticut congregation to a brutal murder in its midst.  The article is entitled "Death Penalty Tests a Church as It Mourns," and here are some excerpts:

Two years ago, congregants attended midnight vigils outside the prison where Connecticut executed a prisoner for the first time in 45 years.  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....

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....

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.

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.”

Some related posts on victims, religion and the death penalty:

October 28, 2007 at 12:24 PM | Permalink


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This piece is completely ghoulish.

To point out the obvious, speculation as to what a woman murdered with her children in a horrifying manner would have wanted to be done with her murderers elevates the importance of the animals that committed these awful crimes. Mrs. Petit, by all accounts a wonderful person, was far more than whether or not she opposed the death penalty, and focusing on this simply elevates the importance of these killers, who really should have none whatsoever. To a person who knew Mrs. Petit and who opposes the death penalty but who has perspective, the fate of these two should be of very little concern.

Moreover, the idea that these people can speak for Mrs. Petit's views on the death penalty, given what she went through, is curious.

And why in the hell would anyone want to "counter the outrage"? And certainly who would be so callous as to use the words of a murder victim to cool such outrage. These crimes were outrageous, and using the victim in such a manner defies belief.

And I guess also, the reporter did not consider what the girls would have thought about the death penalty.

Posted by: federalist | Oct 28, 2007 12:44:41 PM


Victims through out the nation no exactly what you are talking about: There opinions only matter if they coincide with the Prosecutor's desire. God forbid a victim oppose the death penalty then they can't have a voice, but support the death penalty and you would be screaming about nothing but victims. You don't care about victims, just the politics of victimization.

Posted by: nony | Oct 28, 2007 2:04:17 PM

Great post nony. We don't hear enough about that side of the coin.

Here is another example why it might be important to recognize the views of Mrs. Hawke-Petit, if she was against the death penalty:

"Billy Neal Moore, who spent 16 years on death row, came within days of execution, and was subsequently freed due to exemplary behavior, has written I Shall Not Die: Seventy-two hours on Death Watch.

Only 22 years old when he committed murder, Moore confessed and was sentenced to death. While in prison, a minister baptized him, and he was so overcome with remorse for the murder that he wrote a letter to the victim's family. They were so moved by his sorrow that they forgave him. In turn, Moore vowed to transform the lives of anyone he could by showing them what Christ had done for him. He studiously pored over the Bible and began writing religious articles for the outside world. Soon he was writing about 300 letters a week to lost souls around the country, from fellow inmates to teens in crisis.

As his death date edged closer, Moore lost a series of three appeals. His fate seemed to be sealed until the victim's family vehemently opposed his execution, and a last-minute request by Mother Theresa helped grant him a life sentence. Because of exceptional behavior, Moore was released a year later.

His breathtaking and awe-inspiring ordeal not only speaks of the power of forgiveness and compassion, but also of people's ability to stare evil in the face and fight for goodness. It is proof that each human being is capable of redemption. I Shall Not Die adds a compelling case study to the raging controversy over the death penalty, the judicial system and punitive culture that exist in America.

In Moore's successful struggle to overcome his past, readers learn how this brave man faced his demons and fought against them in a dignified and honorable fashion. As audiences around the country hear his story, Moore moves them with his tenacity, his dedication and the lessons of his personal transformation.

Currently a minister with the Christ Assembly of Evangelistic Ministries, Moore has spoken at dozens of locations, including Harvard, Yale, USC, UCLA, Stanford, Georgia state ,University of Georgia, American, Georgetown University, Ithaca College, Emory Law School, Northeastern, Tufts College and the University of Massachusetts."

At least we know that you do not share one of Doug's four reservations.

Posted by: peter | Oct 28, 2007 2:35:48 PM

My post has nothing to do with whether Ms. Petit or any other victim, for that matter, would have wanted the death penalty. My post simply has to do with people who choose to speak for this woman, with the assumption that her views didn't change before she was killed, and it has to do with the ghoulishness of the story.

Posted by: federalist | Oct 28, 2007 3:26:14 PM

I think that her views of the death penalty should be taken into account. I know that I wouldn't want the state to murder anybody on my behalf, even that that same person murdered me.

I guess I should rigth some kind of notarized letter. Just in case.

Posted by: EJ | Oct 28, 2007 3:59:05 PM

I'm not convinced that the victim's opinion really matters that much. As someone who lives close to where this crime occurred, I think there's a genuine, collective need for justice for these crimes. And given the details of this crime, the rape of the mother and daughters, their brutal killings, this crime calls out for the ultimate penalty. How does any lesser penalty provide justice?

Posted by: Steve | Oct 28, 2007 7:20:15 PM


Isn't using victims pretty much the sum total of what you do? And, again, so long as you advocate political positions that create these "animals," you have no standing to complain about them.

Posted by: DK | Oct 28, 2007 11:09:51 PM

It is one of the most commonly used justifications used by pro-Death Penalty supporters - that the "victims" need closure through this act. You can't have it both ways. Either the victim's truly have a right to a voice, or they do not. My own feeling is that the process and judgments of law should be divorced from these voices - in their own interests as much as anything else. But as for community outrage, you would be just as sickened and outraged if the breaks failed on a truck and a queue of people died as a result. The law is there to act dispassionately on a particular set of circumstances. Revenge or the calming of your outrage should not be part of the legal process. Justice is not achieved by death because Justice requires the opportunity for remorse, redemption and rehabilitation as well as punishment.

Posted by: peter | Oct 29, 2007 5:18:39 AM

I don't think it's fair to accuse me of sloganeering with victims at all. When I refer to victims, I usually am referring to preventable victims, i.e., people that would otherwise have not been harmed but for some goofy policy that I oppose, or, in the death penalty context, I am referring to the endless appeals and the abusiveness of last-minute stays, which can be heart-wrenching, even for people who oppose the death penalty.

Posted by: federalist | Oct 29, 2007 11:16:22 AM

I sympathize to a degree, but in some of the comments/arguments I have seen you make recently, you use emotive language that can only attract hostile reaction. There are always two sides to a story, and on a forum such as this it is maybe better to show respect for both victims and (apparent) perpetrators. After all, this is a legal blog read by and contributed to mostly by legal experts or those with a personal stake in the outcomes of legal decisions. Opinions, even strong opinions, can be presented more moderately to invite or engage debate. I look forward to continuing the debate with you in that spirit.

Posted by: peter | Oct 29, 2007 12:32:00 PM

I dont see myself showing respect to murderers.

Posted by: federalist | Oct 29, 2007 1:36:35 PM

Then I would encourage you to educate yourself further about the men and women on the many death rows of the nation. There are many ways of doing that, both directly and indirectly. You will find authors, artists, poets, mentally ill, illiterates and many others, some of whom have genuine claims to innocence. They are all human, suffering terrible conditions of incarceration, and with the threat of death hanging over them every day, usually for at least a decade. What were you like 10 years ago; what do you expect to be like in another 10 years? There is within us all, even if we have committed terrible crimes, the potential to change and to have something positive to offer society. It is that that makes us human. If you could not shake Billy Moore's hand today, and respect the transformation the man has achieved, then you have a lot of learning to do.

Posted by: peter | Oct 29, 2007 2:42:35 PM

I'm sorry, I'm with federalist here (shaky ground, I know). Anyone who doesn't know the value of human life (in a manner that qualifies as intentional) until after he's taken it and been caught doing so, is not going to earn my respect, regardless of the "work" he does on death row.

Good for Billy Moore that he found the error of his ways when faced with death, but have you ever thought that without facing his own mortality, he never would have reformed? That, maybe, just maybe, the existence of the death penalty which you seek to eliminate actually was the impetus of the change you see in Moore?

Posted by: JustClerk | Oct 30, 2007 9:55:11 AM

Yes JustClerk, I see you were careful to cover yourself. Nonetheless, we could have quite a philosophical debate about that word "intentional" couldn't we. For example, how convenient it is to substitute it with the word "collateral" in a different context.
Also, you fail to address the fact that here is an obviously intelligent man who is perfectly literate, yet was apparently unaffected by the supposed deterrent effect of the death penalty. To "forgive" is maybe not the perfect word to use - language has its limitations - but you should not confuse its intended meaning with the word "excuse". Billy would not, I'm sure, seek to excuse his actions. Whatever anger you feel about his crime, is no greater than the shame and regret he himself feels. We can credit and respect the manner in which he has fought to give back to society, and to reclaim his soul. That is the Christian and moral perspective that, in religious terms, Jesus would have granted and expected.
Your final sentence is interesting. If it was the impetus, then I would expect the prospect of a lifetime of incarceration to have at least the same effect. If you admit the reformatory power of the threat of death, then you cannot deny the probable equal reformatory power of lifetime incarceration, nor the equally powerful incentive of freedom. Even with the possibility of parole, which as you know I favor, there can be no certainty of freedom - it has to be worked for and assessed to be appropriate.

Posted by: peter | Oct 30, 2007 2:14:25 PM

In reading Federalist's first comment, I was initially confused. I thought the victims were killed by actual animals; rabid wolves perhaps? Then I realized Fed was being hyperbolic - that the perpetrators were actually humans. Which pretty much ended the debate for me right there. It's interesting how often death penalty proponents refer to perpetrators as "animals" - as if humans could not have perpetrated such acts. That word choice reflects a rather too-rosey opinion of humanity, in my opinion. Drop the rhetoric. We all know that humans kill humans. Just say it. It's what you're advocating, after all.

Posted by: achiever | Nov 29, 2007 4:44:55 PM

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