Death-penalty opponents take a new tack

Opponents of capital punishment today began the delicate task of countering the angry and anguished eloquence of Dr. William Petit. In blunt terms, he wants to see the death penalty preserved and the killers of his wife and daughters executed.

Dr. Gail Canzano, a clinical psychologist whose brother-in-law, Thomas E. Otte, was stabbed to death in his Hartford apartment in 1999, said she understands Petit's wishes, but the system he wants to preserve is bringing him more trauma.

Gail Canzano

Gail Canzano

"There is no healing in this," Canzano said. "The death penalty ensnares people in the criminal justice system, where mandatory appeals, constitutional challenges and never-ending media attention result in notoriety for the murderer and years of suffering and uncertainty for the families left behind."

Canzano was one of 76 relatives of murder victims who have signed a letter urging the General Assembly to pass a new version of a bill vetoed in 2009 by Gov. M. Jodi Rell. It would have eliminated capital punishment for new crimes.

It was written with the Petit murders in mind, knowing that some legislators are rattled by the idea of casting a vote that could be interpreted as saving the lives of Steven J. Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky.

It is unclear if supporters of repeal can repeat their success in 2009, when they passed a repeal measure by votes of 19 to 17 in the Senate and 90 to 56 in the House. Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed the bill, but her successor, Dannel P. Malloy, would sign it.

The bill's prospects in the Senate could be settled by special elections to fill three seats.

Hayes was convicted last fall and sentenced to death. Komisarjevksy is to go on trial this spring, just as the General Assembly might begin to once again debate repeal.

"As a clinical psychologist with many years of experience treating individuals suffering from the effects of trauma, I can tell you the death penalty is injurious to the families of murder victims," Canzano said. "Why? Because every single court appearance re-traumatizes the family, forcing them to relive the murder of their loved one over and over again."

Two years ago in March, Petit told lawmakers that anything less than execution would demean the victims of capital crimes, including his wife and children.

"If you allow murderers to live, you're giving them more regard, more value, than many people who have been murdered in this state, including these three women who never hurt a soul and played by all of society's rules for all of their short lives," he said.

He conceded that his own wife might have disagreed with his testimony.

"We may have to catch up with her at some point and get the real answer," Petit said. "But I think a lot of people have academic opinions, and the question is, when reality slaps them hard in the face, what do they really believe?"

Canzano believes that Petit ultimately will be ill-served by appeals that are certain to keep him going to court for years, if not decades.

"The judicial system re-victimizes the very people it seeks to assist," Canzano said. "And all this for a false promise and a false hope, because in the end, what do we get? Let's stop kidding ourselves. Connecticut doesn't execute people."

Canzano declined a reporter's invitation to offer advice to Petit. Instead, she said the state of Connecticut grieves for Petit and his family, and the deaths of his wife and daughters traumatized a population far beyond the confines of Cheshire.

"I am so sorry Dr. Petit has to go through this," she said.

Canzano questioned the point of capital punishment in Connecticut, where the only man executed in the past half-century was Michael Ross, who waived his appeals and chose death over life in prison without possibility of parole.

"If we have any real empathy for the families of murder victims, we'll tell them the truth," she said. "The death penalty doesn't work, and it's not possible to fix it. We'll tell them that it's an archaic process, already abolished in most of the world and on it's way out in the United States. If we have any real empathy for the families of murder victims we'll stop putting them through this."