Restorative justice, survivors and the death penalty
Aug 04, 2009
by Dan Van Ness
Two interesting items appeared on my desktop today, both about the death penalty. One, titled Conn. Home Invasion Survivor Faces Long Court Case, begins this way:
NEW HAVEN, Conn. – At 52, Dr. William Petit faces years — perhaps decades — of emotionally draining court hearings before the two men charged with murdering his family in a 2007 home invasion may be convicted and executed.
He’ll have to listen repeatedly to the horrific details of the crimes against his wife, who was strangled, and two daughters, who were tied to their beds. All three died of smoke inhalation from a fire police say the intruders set as they fled Petit’s house after holding the family hostage for hours. Petit, a prominent physician who was beaten during the ordeal, will sit feet away from the defendants as they assert their rights and file appeal after appeal.
As lawmakers weigh the future of the death penalty in some states, officials are giving greater weight to the effect of prolonged death penalty cases on victims’ families. Petit realizes that the case might drag on for years, but he remains committed to seeing defendants Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky put to death.
If you had told me four years ago on the day I received my Certificate in Documentary Studies from Duke University that my first major project would feature the death penalty issue, I probably would have smiled politely and said, "I doubt that." It wasn't an issue I had extreme feelings about one way or the other. But several weeks later as I was checking the weather on our local TV station's website, a headline caught my eye: "Family Forgives Father For A Mother's Death." I immediately felt inexplicably compelled to make a documentary about this family's amazing story of forgiveness. What I didn't know then is that checking the weather that day would change my life and some of my beliefs as I went on to produce a feature length film about the Syriani sibling's story and their experience with North Carolina's system of justice and the media as they faced their father's impending execution.
It would be superficial to read these and conclude that they are simply an account of how survivors of homicide respond differently. The circumstances of the murders were very different. The Syriani children forgave their father for murdering their mother, and their plea to the court for a prison sentence rather than death was so that they could continue to receive memories of their mother and support from their remaining parent. They believed that he had changed dramatically since the murder of their mother.
Dr. Petit, on the other hand, had/has no relationship -- other than the crime -- with the two home invaders. He favors the death penalty and is willing to invest the years it may take before it is carried out. But this is not his sole focus. He also has participated in fundraisers for causes that his wife and children supported.
The Connecticut story focuses on the length of time it can take before the death penalty is carried out, and the toll this can take on the survivors. Another survivor, quoted in the article, described her life as being on hold because she never knows when there may be another appeal, another trial.
Rev. Cathy Harrington is also quoted. Her daughter and a roommate were also murdered in a home invasion. After months of negotiation among defense attorneys, prosecutors, and representatives from the victims' families, the man charged with the crime pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.
Rev. Harrington cites the length of the appeal process as one factor in her decision. But another stems from her religious beliefs in compassion for others and in respect for the innate worth and dignity of every human being. And both families hope that over time the murderer will change so that it will be possible for them to meet with him in a restorative dialogue.
So how do we respond from a restorative perspective? A central premise is that crime causes harm and that the affected parties should have a voice in deciding how that harm is repaired. While this is best done in a restorative encounter, this is also an argument for allowing victims and survivors to express their points of views at key points in the criminal justice process.
Giving victims and survivors a voice is not the same as giving them the final say in what is to be done. So what weight should be given? Or to put it another way, what consideration should the pertinent sentencing judges give to the fact that the Syriani children want their father spared death while Dr. Petit wants the murderers of his family executed?
What do you think?