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Two Wrongs: Death Penalty Is Revenge, Not Justice

The execution of Troy Davis in Georgia last week has once again pushed the debate over capital punishment to the forefront. Although there are many questions regarding this particular case, Mr. Davis is dead, and any discussion is purely academic.

Instead, let us take a look at Connecticut's own capital case of the moment, the trial of Joshua Komisarjevsky for his part in the deaths of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, in their Cheshire home in 2007.

Unlike Davis, there is no question regarding Komisarjevsky's participation in a heinous crime. Instead, we find the argument to be one of degrees: Is Komisarjevsky a murderer, or was he simply caught up in his alleged accomplice's insane rampage? His life hangs on that question.

What tends to be lost in the sensational details of the crime and the heart-wrenching emotions it evokes is that we are on the verge of exacting revenge on these men, not serving justice.

Justice would have been served if Dr. William A. Petit Jr., who was severely beaten during the attack on his family, and the prosecution had agreed to accept Komisarjevsky's and Steven Hayes' plea bargains for life in prison. Instead, we have all been living with this case for more than four years, with news coverage from The New York Times to the Los Angeles Times and the sordid tale of that night in 2007 splashed across The Courant's front page.

And for what? For the cathartic moment that the execution of two men may offer? A moment which, thanks to automatic appeals, may not come for years, if not decades?

Dr. Petit is an intelligent, well-spoken and sympathetic man, but underneath his eloquence and genuine pain is a cry for revenge. The defendants took his family from him, and now he wants their lives as payback. This is a completely understandable and human reaction to the magnitude of the tragedy he has endured.

The criminal justice system, however, is not an instrument of revenge, nor should it be. Yet we stand by time and again and allow that system to be perverted from its true goal of delivering justice into a tool to satisfy our worst desires, all while disguising the unspeakable act of taking a life in a cloak of biblical eye-for-an-eye law. In fact, two state senators, Edith Prague and Andrew Maynard, actually voted against repealing the death penalty this year despite their opposition to capital punishment in the past, presumably to ensure that Komisarjevsky and Hayes would die for their crimes.

This is wrong. It was wrong for the defendants to take the lives of Jennifer Hawke-Petit, Hayley Petit and Michaela Petit. It is equally wrong for the state, with the people's consent, to take the lives of Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes.

It is wrong because it perpetuates a punishment that disproportionately is applied to poor and minority defendants. It is wrong because men and women have been executed despite serious doubts about their guilt being raised. It is wrong because millions of dollars will be spent on killing these men. It is wrong because when all is said and done, the total body count from that night in Cheshire will be five.

It is wrong because we are allowing ourselves to be morally compromised in the name of revenge. We have dehumanized Komisarjevsky and Hayes by calling them "monsters," "career criminals" and other pejoratives to make it easier to kill them. But they are still human beings with parents and loved ones, just as the victims of their terrible crime were.

Taking a life is wrong. Isn't that why we're about to "punish" the defendants?

Jamil R. Ragland, 25, of Hartford is a senior in the Individualized Degree Program at Trinity College.

The Courant invites writers younger than 30 to write essays of 600 words or less containing strong views. Please e-mail your submission to freshtalk@courant.com, with your full name, hometown, daytime phone number, age and occupation (or your school's name and your level in school). You can also fax op-eds to 860-520-6941.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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