The judiciary committee’s public hearing on the repeal of the death penalty in Connecticut lasted well over 14 hours yesterday, with both sides making impassioned pleas for their respective positions. All the usual arguments were bandied about: it’s not a deterrent, yes it is; it costs money; it’s worth it and so on. So one would think that with a debate so well worn out, there wouldn’t be any surprising moments in the discussion, but oh my, where do I start?
[Before I do start, however, I do want to point out that it seemed to me that unlike in years past, the number of supporters of repeal significantly outnumbered the opponents of repeal. Is this indicative of anything? I'm not sure, but it's worth noting.]
As the day progressed, one common theme seemed to emerge among the opponents of repeal, and since it’s one that’s blatantly wrong and designed to invoke false outrage among people it’s worth tackling head on. The refrain was that prison is a dandy place. A place where inmates “have everything going for them” (yes, that’s an approximation of an actual quote by a State Representative), where they get “all the rights and responsibilities” of other inmates. Where they have a TV – albeit 9 inches and only 1 or 2 channels. Where they can spend 6-7 hours a day outside their cages. Sounds heavenly.
So let’s get one thing clear: bullshit. Prison is a terrible, terrible place. It’s not Club Fed. It’s not your mother’s basement. It’s not the local Starbucks. It’s a fucking prison.
You know what happens in a prison? People are locked up. In tiny cells. With a big metal door that other people control. They also control when you eat, when you walk, when you take a shower, when you sleep, who you talk to, how long you talk to them, what you can watch, what you can read and whether that medical condition of yours deserves treatment.
And you are so controlled, inside drab, grey, concrete, barricaded walls for days, weeks, months, years, decades and in some cases, for the rest of your life. To suggest that allowing people from death row out into some form of general population is a gift that they do not deserve betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what prison is. Either that or it’s an intentional lie meant to rouse the passions of the masses, in which case, if you’re stupid enough to believe it, you deserve what you get.
It’s one thing to go look at conditions of confinement when you’re with a touring party and a show is being put on just for you. It’s quite another to sit there, day in and day out, left with nothing but the sound of your own slowly deteriorating mind.
And let’s clear up another misconception: this bill would change the penalty of death to – and listen carefully now – life in prison. without. the possibility. of release.
It should be clear enough, but since a surprising number of people are poor at reading comprehension, I’ll state it in even simpler terms: life without the possibility of release means that there is no chance, none whatsoever, that those individuals will ever be released from prison, even if they live to the ripe old age of 5,328. In yet other words, they will die in prison. There’s no if, but or parole about it. So stop with the nonsense.
There is another segment of the population that seems to have deliberately closed its ears to an honest and accurate debate on the death penalty: our purveyors of fact, the doyens of social responsibility and honorable men, all – news media.
There are two things the media loves to trumpet in the wake of any death penalty debate: an incomplete statistic of the support of the death penalty and the views of one particular high-profile victim’s family.
It is true that, when asked if they support the death penalty, 67% of respondents said yes. So the headline becomes 67% support the death penalty. The headline is half-true and would be fully true if the words (in a vacuum) were added.
Because, as is often the case, the truth lies deeper (or in the case of this poll, in the next sentence): that when given the choice between the death penalty and life without the possibility of release, only 48% support the death penalty, while 43% oppose it with 9% not having a clue. As anyone who can reasonably guess at the meaning of words might tell you, 48% does not a majority make.
But try and find that in the news piece I linked to above. Or in any other. I’m not saying this as a supporter of abolition. I’m saying this as someone who wants to see an honest, informed debate. What other reason can there be to ignore this vital statistic than the fact that it doesn’t fit within the pre-determined story?
In the world of victims in Connecticut, in the context of the death penalty debate, there are two types: the Petits and everyone else. The Petits who, as is their right, have been vocal in their opposition to the repeal of the death penalty get a mention in every news story about yesterday’s public hearing despite not being present to testify. Those on the other side are lumped together – if they get a mention at all – in an amorphous blog of nameless, colorless, existence-less, generic terms like “other supporters of repeal”.
No, sorry, that’s just disrespectful. The Petits’ position is just as valid as that of Dawn Mancarella or Elizabeth Brancato whose mothers were murdered, or Catherine Ednie, whose brother and four of his friends were murdered, or Cindy Siclari, whose sister-in-law was raped and murdered, or Jane Caron, whose aunt was murdered in the course of a robbery, or former Hartford Police Chief Daryl Roberts, testifying both as law enforcement and as someone whose cousin was murdered, or Timothy Anderson, whose aunt was murdered [and who is interesting for more than that reason, but more on that in a bit]. You can read all the submitted testimony here.
These people – and their voices and opinions – should be part of the debate just as much as those on the other side.
There was a moment, when Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane, a man who is respected by most on both sides of the bar, started speaking in opposition to the death penalty, when he asked the members of the committee, just like he asks juries, to vote their conscience. He asked them to recognize that this is a gut-wrenching issue, that this will be the most important decision of their lives and to search within their souls and vote according to their beliefs and their convictions.
He’s right, you know. Underneath it all, sentencing a fellow human being to death, no matter whether their actions justified it, is a deeply moral issue.
And we ask our fellow, average, everyday citizens to do this on a regular basis. We ask you and me to make the decision to another’s life as if it were a decision about which car to buy. We place this heavy moral burden on people who do not ask for, nor want this responsibility. If it is such a monumental decision and causes so much anguish for those who are elected to make these decisions, how can we, in good conscience, foist this upon the rest of us?
This brings me back to Timothy Anderson, linked to above. Timothy Anderson was a juror in the trial of Joshua Komisarjevsky. Anderson was opposed to the death penalty and yet he voted to put Komisarjevsky to death (let’s put aside the contradictions here for the purposes of this post). He submitted testimony in support of repeal, not only for moral reasons, but because he experienced first-hand the toll it takes on the regular individual to have to make the decision to end someone’s life. We should not be asking this of our fellow citizens.
This post has gone on long enough and meandered far enough, but I want to end with one exchange I viewed near the very end of the debate last night.
Maybe this came up during the day, I don’t know. But it was the first time I’d seen someone mention it yesterday: the death penalty is about who we are and who we want to be. It needs to be said. Put aside finances and the unworkability of the statute and the required appellate process. At its core, the death penalty is about how we wish to be viewed as a society. Are we forgiving, just and fair? Or are we racist, vengeful murderers?
As the member of the public said in response to some chiding by Republican Senator Kissel: “with all due respect, Senator, this is about how history will view us. And history will not look upon us kindly”.