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A Killing in Connecticut

At Doublethink, Sonny Bunch cites the horrifying murders committed by Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky in Cheshire, CT in 2007, and concludes:

As far as I am concerned, those two have made their lives forfeit. I want the state to take vengeance upon them for the evil that they have done. If they were to be drawn and quartered and their remains were scattered to the four corners of the continental United States, you wouldn’t hear peep out of me.

Every time I start to waver on my support for the death penalty ... I see a story like this and it snaps me right back into line.

Left unexamined is the irony that Bunch borrowed his description of the murders in question from a New Yorker article with a clear anti-death-penalty slant--indeed, one that suggests that America's high murder rate and high execution rate are opposite sides of the same coin. ("If the history of murder contains a lesson, [Cesare] Beccaria believed, it was this: 'The countries and times most notorious for severity of punishment have always been those in which the bloodiest and most inhumane of deeds were committed.'")

Bunch does suggest several reasonable caveats about limiting the death penalty to crimes that are the most egregious and where guilt is the most certain, though I fear they are politically impractical: This is one case where the slope appears to be slippery.

But what struck me most is the way Bunch uses his moral intuition that Hayes and Komisarjevsky deserve death as a basis for policymaking (i.e., the death penalty), and then immediately cuts the legs out from under his own argument by suggesting that same moral intuition would be unperturbed if the (alleged) murderers were drawn and quartered--a law enforcement policy I think it's safe to assume he does not support.

Bunch adds, "I want the state to wreak vengeance upon [Hayes and Komisarjevsky]. And, god help me, I want them to suffer when it happens." Here, again, he is offering an emotional remedy that I don't think he would actually want to become law. The purpose of the death penalty is not, after all, to cause suffering--quite the contrary, as our gradual shift from hanging to the electric chair to lethal injection attests. Does Bunch think that the state should be empowered to inflict deliberate pain--by torture or beating or less humane forms of execution--in the name of vengeance? Again, I sincerely doubt it.

For what it's worth, I--and, I suspect, many--share Bunch's gut-level response to a considerable degree. Hayes and Komisarjevsky are such monsters that they seem to merit not merely death but something more: a punishment of brutality commensurate to their crimes rather than a quiet, pain-free lethal injection. But believing that these two men deserve a terrible fate and empowering the state to inflict it upon them are two very different things.

Whatever punishment is meted out to Hayes and Komisarjevsky will speak not merely to their characters, but to our own--as the New Yorker article that initially got Bunch's attention suggested. Which is why, however surely the two men deserve death, I don't believe it is our place to grant it to them.