I cannot read press accounts of the murder of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters without tears forming. At least two men burst into the family home in the dead of night. They beat Dr. William Petit with a baseball bat. They raped the girls. They compelled the mother to go to a bank to withdraw funds, and then strangled her to death. Then they set the house afire, the girls dying of smoke inhalation as they lay tied to their beds. The father somehow escaped and must now live with memories that transform reality into a waking nightmare.
This savaged family looked too much like my own. Dr. Petit had earned a comfortable place in the world by dint of hard work. They were living the American Dream, it seemed.
Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky stand accused of the crimes. Press accounts leave little to doubt about their involvement. They were seen fleeing from the home as it burst into flames. They had in their possession the money the wife was forced to withdraw from a bank. They tried to ram their way to freedom when they confronted a police roadblock while leaving the home in one of the family's car.
Why? Why this? Why this act of desecration of ordinary hope?
Truman Capote's In Cold Blood rendered the 1959 murder of the Clutter family in Kansas into a powerful piece of writing about greed's destruction of innocence. Two lost souls thought they could find a new life by taking some of the Clutter's money. They planned a robbery of this family, hoping the cash they'd find there would make their hopes and dreams come true. The killers met in prison where they'd heard that Mr. Clutter kept enormous sums of cash at his farm, a belief which turned out to be untrue.
These killers chose their target carefully. They planned the robbery.
And what of Connecticut's cold blood and hot, hot flames? Hayes and Komisarjevsky apparently met at a half-way house while finishing prison sentences. Both have long records as petty thieves and burglars. Initial police investigations suggest they selected the Petit family more or less at random. They spotted the mother and daughter at a grocery store, saw them get into an expensive car, followed them home, and thus marked their target. They returned hours later.
There is little doubt that New Haven State's Attorney Michael Dearington will seek the death penalty. Several lonely lawyers will then have the privilege of defending these men.
Did I say privilege?
We are at our best as a society when howling rage and incandescent anger are tamed by the rule of law. Cases such as these make our legal system stronger, not weaker. Consider the following: There was never, not once, any danger of an angry posse storming the jail to lynch Mr. Hayes and Mr. Komisarjevsky. We simply know better by now.
Last week's carnage in Cheshire is not a sign that we have gone soft on crime in Connecticut. And it does not require reforms at the Board of Pardons and Parole.As horrific as the crime was, there simply wasn't a way to foresee that two ho-hum crooks would snap and become vicious killers. Pretending otherwise merely makes us feel good as we stare merciless evil dead in the eye.
This epic act of savagery makes every bump in the night smell of Hell's sulfur. As we regroup, let's not lose perspective and believe we could have prevented this, or that we can, by being tougher on crime, keep the cloven hoof of evil from ever again crushing an innocent neck. That would be a form of blasphemy and conceit.
Reprinted with permission of The Connecticut Law Tribune.