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Death in Connecticut

Dr. William A. Petit Jr. lost his wife and two daughters in the most horrific way imaginable. After an invasion of the family’s home in Cheshire, Conn., Petit was clubbed repeatedly with a baseball bat; his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, was raped and strangled; and his children, Hayley and Michaela, were left to die after the family’s attackers set fire to their house and fled. Last week a jury voted to impose the death penalty on Steven J. Hayes, one of two men who took part in the invasion. The decision came a year after Gov. M. Jodi Rell of Connecticut, citing the Petit murders, vetoed a bill that would have outlawed the death penalty in her state.

Grief seems to be the only acceptable response to such a terrible chain of events. In the face of Dr. Petit’s overwhelming sorrow, even the most ardent opponent of the death penalty is tempted to remain mute. Yet when arguing about the death penalty, these are the cases one must face. Whether the killer is Steven Hayes or Tariq Aziz, death is presented as the only just punishment. But what message is sent when the government’s method of justice mirrors the murderer’s own? In this country, the campaign to abolish the death penalty will never succeed if exceptions are made because of the gruesome nature of particular crimes. Time and again, efforts to outlaw the procedure have run aground when the public imagination seizes on a single evil act. But is this the proper way to govern a society? A system of law should not be swayed by worst-possible scenarios.


How Graphic?

During a prime time interview on NBC, former President George W. Bush startled Matt Lauer. Mr. Bush recounted that after his mother Barbara miscarried, she showed her teenage son the child in a jar. “Here’s the fetus,” Mr. Bush recalled her saying. While the more squeamish might recoil at that story, Mr. Bush said that the episode affected him profoundly and helped him understand the sanctity of life inside the womb. “There’s no question that it affected me,” he said.

The anecdote points to a perennial question for those committed to end abortion. How graphic can you get? Rare is the adult who has not seen a photo of an aborted fetus as part of a pro-life mailing or on a placard during a pro-life rally. But is it an effective strategy? Some argue, the more reality, the better: those who favor abortion should see whose life they would permit ending. (Similar arguments are made by some death-penalty opponents: executions should be televised to show citizens what is being done in their name.) Sonograms and high-resolution images of fetuses also can change minds. Such technology swayed Dr. Bernard N. Nathanson, an abortion provider who later produced the anti-abortion movie “Silent Scream.” On the other hand, some argue that graphic images like aborted fetuses simply disgust the viewer who may not have made up her (or his) mind about abortion. Revulsion over strong tactics may harden into opposition to the pro-life movement that adopts these strategies. Parents may also want to shield children from such images.

One can question the wisdom of a mother, even one grieving the terrible loss of a child, showing her teenage son a fetus in a jar. But as President Bush has demonstrated, reality does have the capacity to move hearts.

Malaria in India

Rates of mortality from malaria in India have been seriously underestimated, according to new studies by international researchers. A recent issue of The Lancet reports that because most deaths in India occur at home, far from hospitals, the precise cause is seldom medically certified. Deaths from malaria can thus go unidentified. Complicat-ing the situation is the fact that a main symptom, high fever, is also common with diseases like dengue and typhoid. The new studies conclude that malaria causes over 200,000 annual deaths in India—an astonishing 13 times more than the World Health Organization’s estimates. Under-reporting may also be a factor in statistics about malaria deaths in other densely populated countries, like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia.

Field workers interviewed families in mostly rural areas of India, asking them to describe how their relative died. Then, in a so-called verbal autopsy, two doctors reviewed each description. The field reports were sent to teams of trained physicians who reviewed each again. W.H.O., while welcoming new efforts to establish a more accurate count of malaria deaths, expressed concern over verbal autopsies because similar symptoms can occur in different diseases. Evaluating deaths accurately is important, researchers say, because different diseases call for different control strategies.

A disease that can be eliminated, malaria remains a scourge for many of the world’s poorest people and should be addressed through greater international attention and funding. Efforts like those of the Clinton Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have reduced deaths in some African countries. Similar outreach is now needed in India and similarly afflicted countries.

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Henry Mansell
7 years 11 months ago
While I understand the notion that the death penalty should not be the law of the land, I do not agree with the analogy "But what message is sent when the government’s method of justice mirrors the murderer’s own?"  The result is the same - death, but the reasoning is very different - (1) the perpetrator's sanity (or insanity) or perhaps selfishness that drives him/her to murder; (2) the government laying forth a punishment that is not secret.  In the case of the Cheshire horror, the victims did nothing to deserve the torture they received.  The  perp, however, did commit atrocities that warrant severe punishment.  So, whether I believe the death penalty is fair or inhumane, to compare the death penalty with the cime of murder is baseless.
Marie Rehbein
7 years 11 months ago
But what message is sent when the government’s method of justice mirrors the murderer’s own?

The more typical punishment is confinement in a prison.  What message does it send when the government uses this method to punish someone who, say, imprisoned a family member in his basement for twenty-four years?

That the type of punishment mirrors the criminal's actions means nothing.  Let's not spend so much time making ourselve appear righteous that we lose sight of justice.
Alina Sedlander
7 years 11 months ago
In regard to the death penalty, until we as a society demand that it be abolished it will continue to be used as a method of revenge.  So many murders are so heinous that viscerally we entertain the most savage of retributions we can muster.  However like anything in life we have Christ's words, the Church's teachings and secular law to stop us from taking action.  We are one of the last democracies to still use the barbaric method of state legitimatized murder and until we recognize it for what it is then we can put the force of law against it.
Bush's story of being shown the fetus is the jar by his mother is one of the most inappropriate and dysfunctional family vignettes I have heard a former president air with pride.  It  rings falsely since the Bush parents were pro-abortion until it became politically expedient to be pro-life.  I don't buy it, that this horrendous moment was seminal in W's formulation of pro-life leanings.  I am sure he was scarred due to age and boundary crossing by his mother but the rest sounds like fiction. W also gleefully supported capital punishment when he was governor of Texas & bragged during a presidential debate about all the people that were killed in Texas by this bloody method.
Douglas Corkhill
7 years 11 months ago
Amazing how you recount the recent interview between Matt Lauer and George Bush, but yet fail to mention how prolific Bush was as Governor of Texas signing death warrants. (One of which is now under review as the evidence was wrong) Execution of prisoners is killing and so is abortion. You cannot distinguish one from the other.
7 years 11 months ago
Bring back DDT!
Edwin Eckel
7 years 11 months ago
What happened to the Petit family should happen to no one. That such things do happen infrequently may help drive the shock and horror climate perhaps required to generate sustaining support for the death penalty.  Where is the Connecticut Catholic leadership on this?  Would a regular drumbeat of faith in God's Holy wisdom, of supporting stern and exacting punishments short of death help to counter-balance the shock that leads to cries for the death penalty?  One would think it could be the case in exact similarity to the morally correct and steady drumbeat against a right to abortion or a right to assisted suicide.  

A year ago, Bishop Lori of Bridgeport was on the steps of the state capitol protesting a law that would have forced the Church to pass control of parishes to local parish boards.  This was in response to the Church closing parochial schools in primarily poor neighborhoods. The same archbishop recently lost a long and expensive battle to keep sealed from public view the results of an internal investigation into allegations a priest abused a child more than 20 years ago.  The same leadership did not go out to engage in civil actions against supremacists verbally assaulting children leaving a Bridgeport mosque after Friday services last summer.  The same leadership has made no significant comment on the use of the death penalty in the Petit case.  
The local Church hierarchy has  no problem wading into legal and public battles for economic reasons yet is surprisingly mute on issues involving the commandments.  The Church position is given with silence as effectively as with public engagement of the issues.  The silence loudly proclaims that the 5th Commandment only applies in certain situations.  If a Commandment is optional, what is not optional? 
Ana Blasucci
7 years 10 months ago
RE: "A Death in Connecticut:"
There is no shortage of reasons to oppose the Death Penalty.  There are moral grounds both faith-based and secular, and practical grounds, all aplenty.
Leave that issue aside.  Why should worst-case scenarios not sway certain aspects of a legal system? 
(Permit a digression:  the one area where capital punishment is still allowed by Catholic teaching is a perfect storm of worst-cases.  Taking some interpretive license, it seems this would be the presence of a criminal so dangerous that even his relegation to the most secure prison or perhaps even his continued existence is a real danger to society; maybe a Hannibal Lechter type.  Then this begs the question, would this be the death penalty as administered, or a pre-emptive action?  If the latter, what of such?  Sticky.).
Reject the Death Penalty. 
Do respect the anaylytical power of the worst case scenario.  It is made clear before the offending line why capital punishment should be rejected, according to the writers.  What isn't clear is why the "worst case" should always be rejected in the bigger picture as a matter of general analytic principle. 


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