On May 24, 1994, my wife Wanda and I became homicide survivors. Our beautiful 19-year-old daughter, Melanie, was brutally strangled to death in our house by her ex-boyfriend.
None of us asked for this. This was a brutal, selfish act by someone who could not tolerate the break-up. Melanie was a college student studying social work and psychology. She had begun to make her mark on society by volunteering at convalescent homes and soup kitchens, helping with newborns and bringing home stray animals and teenagers in need of a hot meal and a safe place to stay.
Melanie's case was not eligible for the death penalty, which must meet serious parameters even to be considered. Even if it had been eligible, the state's attorney also must make a determination as to whether to pursue the death penalty. So, even though Melanie's case was horrific, it did not meet the criteria for consideration of the death penalty as is true of the vast majority of the homicide cases in the state. Thus, only the most horrific crimes in Connecticut actually become death penalty cases.
The brutal murders of Jennifer, Hayley and Michaela Petit in their Cheshire home in 2007 cry out for the death penalty. This was one of the most horrific crimes ever recorded. These violent persons, convicted killers Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, certainly do not have the right to continue to exist on earth. Even in the unlikely event they are actually executed, their death will be infinitely less painful than those of the Petits.
The problem with the death penalty, as it is currently constituted, is that it is not carried out swiftly. There are murderers on death row who have been there for more than two decades. Their appeals are mainly stalling tactics as they offer no new evidence to claim innocence.
In our case, we have suffered through numerous appeals, which produced no new evidence. There is never any dispute about the perpetrator's guilt. But, he has his rights!
Where are the rights of the victims and their survivors? No one stops to think about that. I am not advocating eliminating appeals. I am just advocating limiting appeals to a reasonable number, as more than 30 states have done.
The current General Assembly seems bent on eliminating the death penalty, although the citizens are overwhelmingly for it. Our legislators must be more in tune with the desires of their constituents. We seem to spend an inordinate amount of time discussing the death penalty. The fact that only one person, Michael Ross in 2005, has been executed since 1960 pales in comparison to the rising number of homicides in Connecticut. And, Ross would not have been executed had he not advocated for it.
If the death penalty is eliminated, the most severe punishment for murder would be life in prison without possible release. How long would it be before the legislature begins a movement to lessen that penalty, claiming it too is inhumane? After all, it's not humane to take away a prisoner's hope of release.
I would suggest that we use the time and the money spent arguing about the death penalty to provide more support for victims. One of the main arguments against the death penalty is that it is given disproportionately to minorities. One can also make the argument that one minority murderer creates many more minority victims. Crime victims are the most underserved population in Connecticut. Why do people care more about the perpetrators than their innocent victims? This question has haunted me since Melanie's death.
What about homicide survivors? We basically have to fend for ourselves. The money spent to support crime victims is infinitely small compared to that spent on the criminals. Certainly, we want violent felons to be locked away for good. However, they have many more benefits than victims. They can get free legal services.
Victims/survivors are not represented in the criminal justice system. Killers get free unlimited medical, dental and psychological services. Victims/survivors get relatively few services in comparison.
I urge citizens to research this issue. Get the true story so that you can make an informed, appropriate decision.
Samuel L. Rieger, Ph.D., lives in Waterbury.