When it comes to issues that deeply divide society, the death penalty ranks high. There’s not much middle ground available – life in prison is still life; there are no degrees of death. Action is irreversible.
The divisions were on display this week with the case of Troy Davis, who was put to death in Georgia despite efforts to prevent that.
Meanwhile, in Connecticut, a trial that could result in a death sentence – though Connecticut has carried that out only once in 50 years – got started with all the legal wrangling and bitterness and tension the occasion called for. Yet it also saw a moment of incredible grace and compassion.
Joshua Komisarjevsky is charged with capital felony murder in the deaths of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters. Another man was sentenced to death last year after a trial for his participation in the murders.
Hawke-Petit’s husband, William Petit, was severely beaten but survived. He is a fierce advocate for death penalty, speaking up at news conferences outside court proceedings (which was the subject of some legal motions since the lawyers are under a gag order) and in hearings at the legislature. He has argued against any plea deal that would give the defendants only life in prison without parole and wants them sentenced to death. Komisarjevsky’s lawyers have sought to have Petit barred from the courtroom except during his own testimony, to make him remove pins from the foundation he formed in honor of his dead family.
The lines are drawn.
And yet …As spectators settled into their seats on Tuesday, the trial’s second day when Petit would take the stand, the Hartford Courant reports, Hawke-Petit’s father “approached Komisarjevsky’s father, Benedict Komisarjevsky, who was sitting with a defense team member, and put out his hand.
“I just wanted to say I am sorry about what happened,” the Rev. Richard Hawke said as his shook the man’s hand. “God bless you.”
Benedict Komisarjevsky nodded, the Courant reports. Hawke said later that Benedict Komisarjevsky also asked God to bless him.
When asked about approaching Komisarjevsky and shaking his hand, Hawke said, “He’s a human being, and he looked like he needed some of the strength and support that all of my family has.”
Komarisarjevsky and Stephen Hayes, the man already sentenced to death, have been reviled, profiled over and over as evil incarnate. Their lawyers have received threats. It’s hard to overstate the depth of hatred toward these men – and their families.
For Hawke to see – and acknowledge in a very public gesture – the humanness of the father of one of the men responsible for the death of his daughter and granddaughters is an extraordinary expression of compassion.
Compassion is possible, even under the worst circumstances, even in uncomfortable conditions.
It’s easy – maybe natural in the lizard part of our brain that guards our survival -- to divide the world into us/them, self/other, victim/perpetrator. To bridge that divide by recognizing the humanness of the other, the perpetrator, the them, is difficult.
Just like me, he is suffering. Just like me, he needs support. Just like me, his strength is being tested.
Can I see the humanness in the person whose views/attitudes/means of expression are the opposite of mine? Forget shaking hands – can I just not be hostile?
Can I be the bridge, the middle ground, the soft voice?
Difficult, yes. But Impossible? No.
Photo of Marybelle and Richard Hawke arriving at New Haven Superior Court by Stephen Dunn of the Hartford Courant. The photo was taken on Sept. 18, prior to the start of testimony.