11.09.10

I Want Him Dead

But killing a mad man like Steven Hayes won't fix anything. Richard Cohen on why the death penalty for the Connecticut home intruder is revenge, not justice.

On days like this I think of Mike DiSalle. He was once the Democratic governor of Ohio and an important figure in the politics of the 1950s and 1960s. By the time I met him, he was the inevitable Washington lawyer with a regular table at Duke Zeibert’s restaurant, a popular place for political and sports figures. One day he summoned me to his table. He was old and I was young. He wanted to tell me what it’s like to execute a man.

The papers today announced the death penalty for Steven J. Hayes. He is one of two men—the other has yet to be tried—who invaded a home in Cheshire, Connecticut, sexually abused the mother and her two daughters (one of them only 11), strangled the mother and beat the father nearly to death. They then tied the girls to their beds and, with them still alive, set the house on fire. I spare you the details and add only that it is impossible to think of Hayes and his partner that day as fellow human beings. I want them dead.

When Steven J. Hayes dies I will feel no regret. Au revoir, monster.

I have wanted them dead ever since I first read about the crime. I want them dead whenever I see the father, Dr. William A. Petit, Jr., on television. I want them dead when I see the grandparents and I want them dead not because I think their execution will deter another psychopath but because, in some sort of Biblical sense, it seems right.

I oppose the death penalty. I always have. I know it is not a deterrent since the nightly news tells us it does not deter. I know the process is flawed because seemingly everyday someone somewhere gets a Get Out of Jail card on account of a DNA test—sometimes from death row. I oppose it because it lowers us all to the level of the killer. We do to them what they did to us. They don’t think about such things, I know, but they have won us over to their kind of thinking: There are times when it’s OK to kill.

But then something like the Petit case comes along. My head fights with my heart. I want to take a baseball bat to Hayes and I don’t give a damn if it doesn’t deter a single soul. I want to make him suffer, to expiate my anger, to in some way show this son of a bitch that I, as a member of the tribe we call society, demand revenge.

As always, DiSalle intrudes. He beckons me to his table. It is the day after I have written a Washington Post column opposing capital punishment. I remember DiSalle from the cover of Time magazine, a pol, a buddy of Truman’s—a name that blared from my grandmother’s Philco radio. I did not know that one reason he was defeated for re-election was his opposition to capital punishment. He executed six men. He could have executed more.

Jacob Bernstein: Inside the Mind of Murderer Steven HayesHe told me about his first execution. He was in his limo in the state capital, Columbus, when he got a call that the condemned man had died. He stopped the car, rolled down the window and looked up and down the street. Nothing had changed. Something momentous had happened, but nothing had changed. He rolled up the window and went home. A man dies and nothing changes.

When Hayes dies I will feel no regret. Au revoir, monster. But I know that Dr. Petit and what remains of his family will never find closure—that magical land that exists only on gooey talk shows. I will know, too, that the life of yet another man, this one indisputably guilty, will be used to perpetuate a system where the innocent are almost certain to die also. I will know that somewhere another madman is planning a similar scheme, unaware of what happened in Connecticut because he is unaware of everything. I know, too, that when the time comes the nightly news will show the usual raucous crowd outside the prison and I, in my head, will roll down the windows of an old, official limousine and notice, as DiSalle long ago instructed, the big story of the night. Nothing has changed.

Richard Cohen is a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post and a contributor to The Daily Beast.