Earlier this month, a jury convicted Stephen J. Hayes of breaking into the Cheshire, Connecticut, home of the Petit family three years ago, then kidnapping the family, physically assaulting the father, sexually assaulting the mother, and murdering the mother and her two daughters, one 11 years old and the other 17. At a capital sentencing trial that began this week, the same jury will decide whether Hayes will be sentenced to death or life imprisonment without the possibility of release.
It is difficult to conceive of a more harrowing series of crimes, and many people, including Dr. William Petit who survived the havoc that resulted in the deaths of his wife and two daughters, have demanded the death penalty. For them, the punishment should “fit the crime,” and the only punishment that fits this crime is death.
Dr. Petit has undergone an unimaginable ordeal, and one cannot even begin to express the sympathy one feels for him. However, our laws, which are designed to provide a check on the impulse to govern from the understandable emotions attached to such horrendous circumstances, reject the premise that, in death penalty cases, the punishment must fit the crime. Rather, the U.S. Constitution requires that the decision to sentence a human being to death be based not only on an assessment of the crime but also on an assessment of the defendant’s life story.
The overwhelming majority of capital defendants in this country endured bone-chilling mistreatment during their childhoods and suffer from debilitating brain damage and mental illness. The Constitution requires that juries consider these and similarly mitigating facts before deciding whether they should be eliminated from the human community. In 1976, in a case called Woodson v. North Carolina, the United States Supreme Court reasoned that “[a] process that accords no significance to relevant facets of the character and record of the individual offender … excludes from consideration in fixing the ultimate punishment of death the possibility of compassionate or mitigating factors stemming from the diverse frailties of humankind.”
Sadly, the United States remains the only Western democracy that has not rejected capital punishment as an unacceptable abuse of government power and as the ultimate human rights violation. Any claim we still have to being a civilized society depends, at the very least, on the legal requirement that jurors consider the “mitigating factors stemming from the diverse frailties of humankind” before deciding whether to impose the death penalty.
Thus, when deciding whether capital defendants should live or die, jurors must look beyond the often unthinkable events that resulted in a potential death sentence and follow the law, including the requirement that they take into consideration mitigating factors. Unfortunately, empirical studies demonstrate that many jurors sentence defendants to death based solely on their assessment of the crime. For example, an exhaustive study by the Capital Jury Project (PDF), which was funded by the National Science Foundation and which involved some 1,200 juror interviews from 353 capital trials in 14 states, found that over 30 percent of the jurors decided to impose a death sentence after hearing the facts of the crime but before the defendant had had an opportunity to present evidence of his life story at the capital sentencing trial.
Moreover, jurors who took a premature stance for death were most likely to incorrectly think death was mandatory under the law, to express stronger support for the death penalty and to engage in inappropriate discussions of penalties during guilt deliberations.
These statistics are deeply disturbing. They suggest that defendants are being sentenced to death in this country in a manner that is in direct violation of the law. Until the day when this country finally abolishes the death penalty, it is critical that juries comply with the Constitution when determining whether capital defendants will live or die.