Steven Hayes is no Hannibal Lechter. There's no stirring of genius animating his brow. His eyes don't fire with secret commune with evil. Mr. Hayes' crimes shock and inspire terror. But for all that, he looks different in degree, not in kind, from many who have committed horrible crimes. He stands trial just now for his role in the kidnap, rape and murder of a mother and two daughters in Cheshire, Connecticut, in 2007. The state, of course, wants him dead.
There's little doubt of Mr. Hayes' guilt, although a jury has yet to consider the evidence and pronounce a verdict. He was caught fleeing the scene. There are grisly photographs of him participating in the carnage. He's even offered to plead guilty in this highly publicized affair, if only the state would forebear the deadly needle of revenge and spare his life.
But the trial plods on. After nineteen days of individual sequestered voir dire, 11 jurors have been selected. Eight more folks need to be picked to fill out the 12-person panel plus alternates. Evidence is set to begin in September.
The case raises a question few face directly. For whose benefit are we holding this trial?`
Mr. Hayes certainly seems less than interested in the proceedings.
Although jury selection began in January, the proceedings were interrupted when Mr. Hayes tried to kill himself by stockpiling psychotropics and then swallowing a one-way ticket to Hell. Of course, his custodians leaped in to save his life. He was comatose for a time. No expense was spared to bring him back from the edge of eternity. And why was that? So we could kill him.
He was lassoed to a bed and a vigil kept over him 'round the clock.
Psychiatrists announced he was competent to stand trial. Translated into lay terms, that means he understands the charges against him, and is capable of assisting in his own defense. Except he doesn't seem to want to assist. As the trial court questioned him to make sure he was all there, Mr. Hayes stunned the Court and his lawyers by announcing he wanted to plead guilty.
That set juridical heads spinning. The man was declared competent, yet he wanted to plead guilty. Perhaps he wants to die, too. What to do? His lawyers knew what they wanted to do. They threatened to seek permission to withdraw from his case. They oppose the death penalty, after all. Crusaders don't let details like a client get in the way.
In a capital case, trial proceeds in two phases: A jury must first find guilt. Only after this finding does the jury determine whether to kill. So why, really, did Mr. Hayes' lawyers threaten to withdraw? The client is always the master of the ship when it comes to a decision about whether to plea. And the law does not permit Mr. Hayes to waive the penalty phase. Yes, it is wrong for the state to kill. But let's not forget the man whose life the state wants to take. In the end, that life belongs to Steven Hayes, and not to his lawyers.
It seems like Mr. Hayes is a prop in everyone else's psychodrama. The state wants to kill him to satisfy the angry blood lust of a state stirred by a vicious murder in a white upper-middle-class enclave. The surviving victim of the deadly rampage wants death for the sake of vengeance and the false sense of closure that will yield. His lawyers have vowed holy war on the death penalty and have vowed to fight it to the death regardless of their client's wishes.
Is it any wonder Mr. Hayes has grown weary of the melodrama? He just wants to be let alone. So he asked the judge for permission not to attend jury selection in his own trial.
Permission denied, we learned today, in a ruling the reeks of passive-aggressive self-righteousness. "You can't kill yourself, Mr. Hayes. We get to do that. And you mustn't kid yourself into thinking you can avoid watching the months-long orgy of revenge. Sit there like a good little killer and suck it up." The ruling is repulsive sadism.
Mr. Hayes is competent. He has a right to decide whether to plead guilty or not. He faces a state bent on nothing more than vengeance. Is it any wonder that he chooses not to sit day-by-day light some freak-show spectacle to be drooled over by those who want to see him dead?
The judge in this case has wooden ears when he tries to hear a soul cry out in agony. Despite Mr. Hayes' "obvious general detachment, Hayes does show flashes of alertness from time to time and has, when addressed, intelligently, answered questions put to him by the court. He is no automaton," the court ruled. Connect the dots judge. This man who is no automaton ought to have the right to decide whether he wants to sit and watch this bloodsport.
I suspect Mr. Hayes is simply sick and tired of being a pawn in other people's games. Requiring him to sit through endless day after day of jury selection in his case serves no purpose. If he is competent enough to assist in his own defense, he is competent enough to make a decision about whether to attend jury selection. Why not give the man the dignity that comes of his moral autonomy?
The answer, sadly, is that so long as he breathes, we can torture him, endlessly, and thus derive some sick sense of self-righteousness.
I have edited this piece to reflect the concerns of a very thoughful commenter named "Bryce." (See below.) My purpose is not to lionize Mr. Hayes, but to call into question the necessity of this very sad spectacle. This trial needn't be a farce. And for all the evil that Mr. Hayes undoubtedly has done, he is still entitled to elementary dignity in the proceedings. Treating him as a pawn is inconsistent with that.
Mr. Hayes may not be any Hannibal Lechter, but, somehow, the drama being played out in a New Haven courtroom shows how firmly in control of our emotions the man remains. He is the very image of evil we so love to hate. We won't let him fade away into quiet oblivion. No, we must kill him, publicly, and put him on display day-by-day. Little by little, we become smaller versions of the great evil that possesses a killer like Steven Hayes.