The murders of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters, ages 17 and 11, in Connecticut in 2007 are among the most horrific crimes imaginable. If the two defendants are found guilty they could be put to death. The question is: should they be?
What these men are alleged to have done is beyond comprehension. They raped, murdered, and set fire to this mother and her daughters. They brutally beat the father as well, but he managed to escape. They deserve to be punished. Justice needs to be served. But what is the appropriate punishment?
If these men did do the crimes that they have been accused of doing, then our anger, outrage and disgust are certainly warranted. However, if we execute them then we are applying the same “method” that they did, we are killing them. We are stooping to their level by acting as they did. The government should not be taking away anyone’s life.
My view about how these crimes should be punished has changed over the years. I am a former federal prosecutor who used to be staunchly in favor of the death penalty.
However, over my almost 25 years as a lawyer I have seen first-hand just how unjust the judicial system can be. It can make mistakes, big ones. There are many cases where people rot in jail, only to prove years later through DNA that they could not possibly have committed the crimes of which they were accused. If these people had been executed, then their lives would have been ended without any cause to do so. We cannot take a chance that an innocent defendant might be executed. The only way to make sure that that never happens is not to apply the death penalty.
The judicial system has other means to punish people, which in some ways may be even worse than the quick, painless death of an execution. Defendants in cases such as this should be given life sentences, in maximum security prisons, with no chance at all of parole or release. They should never have an ounce of freedom, of any kind, again.
Annemarie McAvoy is a former federal prosecutor. She currently teaches at Fordham University in New York City.