Victim Impact Statements- A Tragedy Beginning in Cheshire, Connecticut

 

“If we live 100 years, I don’t think we’ll ever have closure…If closure brings forgetting, I don’t want that closure.” Reverend Richard E. Hawke

 

There is no mistaking the finality of a victim impact statement. In theory, it is supposed to be the culmination of a family member’s most personal heartfelt thoughts by explaining the inexplicable – the physical, emotional and psychological void experienced.  However, when you consider the extreme vulnerability of a new crime victim, desperately hanging on by threads, it is hard to conceive that any salient, cohesive thoughts are possible.

A person’s ability to craft a statement does not really equate with the seriousness of the crime, for every crime is a serious personal violation. How a crime is perceived and dealt with is truly individual.  We might assume that certain professions (law enforcement, physicians, clergy, social workers) would expose and adequately  prepare these professionals for their own  tragedies. But,  it ain’t necessarily so….   When violent crime happens to you or yours, theories and platitudes often seem hollow.

Consider the example of the Reverend Richard E. Hawke, the father and grandfather of  Jennifer Hawke Petit, Hayley and Michaela Petit. All four members of the Petit family were the victims of one of the most horrendous crimes imaginable, occurring in Cheshire, CT in July 2007. Two perpetrators stalked, kidnapped, invaded the Petit home , escalating to  rape, murder and arson of all female members.  Dr. William Petit, Jr. narrowly escaped death.

Reverend Hawke’s taped victim impact statement (7 min, 58 secs) following the trial of perpetrator Joshua Komisarjevsky, was heartfelt and delivered with dignity. This defeated man spoke in measured tones, truly appealing to the perpetrator, trying to relate a teaching  message to this monster killer.  Did his words somehow penetrate JK’s evil existence?

Grace Under Fire

I thought it remarkable that Reverend Hawke apologized for not being at the sentencing in person and wanted this murderer to get acquainted with them.  As you will hear in the following video, Reverend Hawke spoke of his 55 year career as a Pastor, participation in all kinds of funerals, describing cherished family memories and lost future opportunities Clearly the most difficult experience of one’s life is to bury younger family members far earlier than would be expected.  He related  how and why they endured 131 days with two trials, Reverend Hawke spoke kindly of the perpetrator’s family, the unreimbursable costs preventing more in person participation and the disrespect of the defense team and media, calling them the “Petit Posse.”  Reverend Hawke stated that if his deceased family members could endure  the pain they were subjected to, they too could endure the pain of the two trials on their behalf. This impressive man of God, ended his statement with scripture for his family and regarding the perpetrator.  

Richard Hawke Victim Impact Statement 2012 from Deborrah Glenn-Long on Vimeo.

Sadly, Reverend Hawke passed away suddenly at the age of 84 at his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on June 25, 2016. Regardless of any medical issues, I’m sure he also died with a broken heart.  Reverend Hawke was from Pennsylvania and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps., serving as a chaplain’s assistant in the early 1950’s.  He returned to Grove City College and worked as a student minister at area churches. He married his wife Maybelle, a registered nurse in 1953).   Subsequently he attended Drew Theological Seminary , earning a M. Div and was ordained in 1959. He was named the United Methodist Churches’ Pittsburg District Superintendent in 1978 with several other pastoral assignments in  Pennsylvania until his retirement in 1994.  In addition to his daughter, Jennifer and Cynthia Hawke Renn, he had four grandchildren prior to the 2007 homicides.

A Reverend is used to writing weekly sermons and using inspiring language…and yet Reverend Hawke freely admitted that he struggled for words with this very important task.

Such is the reality of composing a victim impact statement.

One of the options available is to videotape and use the VI Statement as a lasting record of a family member’s wishes over time, such as the video portrayed by Reverend Hawke.

This key role is the one opportunity families have to present a united voice and true picture of their loved one during the judicial process. It is not something to be scribbled on the back of a napkin in haste. Rather, it is better to seek the services of a skilled writer and someone who has encountered a similar experience.

How can the task be made easier?  The burden can be lifted by acquiring assistance from a homicide survivor and advocate with over three decades of experience.  Should you seek assistance, with sufficient advanced notice and a minimal monetary investment, contact me at this link-

https://donnagore.com/victim-impact-statement-assistance/ 


Donna R. Gore

To schedule Donna R. Gore for your next conference, seminar or event, please contact ImaginePublicity.Phone: 843-808-0859 or Email: contact@imaginepublicity.com

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The Final Chapter: The Jury is Out


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“Perhaps catastrophe is the natural human environment… and even though we spend a good deal of energy trying to get away from it; we are programmed for survival amid catastrophe.” Germaine Greer 

December 5, 2011 marks the first day of jury deliberation in the trial of co-defendant Joshua Komisarjevsky. It happens to be the 4 year, 5 month mark since Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters, Hayley – 17 and Michaela – 11 were the victims of the most heinous crime imaginable in Connecticut…and nationally!

Stalking, kidnapping, home invasion, physical assault, restraining, sexual assault and rape, torture, asphyxiation, arson and MURDER- they all occurred in one household in the span of a few hours on a quiet street in Cheshire, Connecticut.

One of the many “bones to pick” with the legal system, is the fact that the jury is not able to see photos of victims or hear victim impact statements during the penalty phase…only during the sentencing phase after they have rendered their decision. However, this was not the case with the defendant! Jennifer’s sister, Cindy Hawke Renn believes, as many others do, that this is a distinctly unfair and does not allow the jury to be educated.

[LJ- There must be a pre-existing judicial rule for this…. Why is it that the defense can attempt to call upon the juries’ sympathies for the defendant, and not have an equal balance for those who are murdered during the penalty phase?]

The following is a summary of the virtual roadmap they must follow weighing mitigating and aggravating factors… It’s a bunch of gobbledygook legal maneuvers in LJ’s opinion, designed to give the perpetrator every chance in the world … but that’s the way it is…

What a chore…. If a jury member takes their responsibility with all seriousness and keeps to the letter of the law. Here’s what they must decide…

The defense’s burden of proof for establishing mitigating factors is less than the burden that the prosecution bears in establishing aggravating factors.

First, the jury will evaluate two statutory mitigating factors — whether Komisarjevsky’s “mental capacity was significantly impaired” or his “ability to conform his behavior to the requirements of law was significantly impaired,” as well as decide whether Komisarjevsky’s role in the killings was minor.

If the jurors find at least one mitigating factor under the statute, the death penalty cannot be imposed.

If no mitigating factors are found, then the jury must decide whether Komisarjevsky committed the murders in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner and whether he created a grave risk of death to another person. These are called aggravating factors.

If jurors do not unanimously agree that an aggravating factor exists, their task is over and Komisarjevsky will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.

If they determine that an aggravating factor exists, the jurors must do so “beyond a reasonable doubt” and proceed to the next step.

The jury will then move on to the 42 additional mitigating factors claimed by the defense.

These factors, which are not covered by statute, focus mostly on Komisarjevsky’s background, his mental health, his employment record, his cooperation with police after the slayings, the value of his life to his family and the defense’s assertion that he has been a well-behaved, productive prisoner.

If none are found, Komisarjevsky will be sentenced to death.

If the jurors agree unanimously that at least one of these factors exists, they then weigh the aggravating factors against the mitigating factors and determine which prevails.

They can identify different factors, as long as they all agree that one is present.

If they find that aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors, Komisarjevsky will be sentenced to death. If not, the sentence is life in prison. Our collective thoughts and prayers are with the Hawke-Petit Family while they wait…while the nation watches the final chapter of this unbearable burden.

“There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” Thornton Wilder

 Watch for my Featured “LadyJustice” Columns on Here Women Talk and Time’s Up Blog.

MICHAELA’S GARDEN PROJECT

michaelas-garden

After the tragic July 2007 home invasion and fire in Cheshire, CT, that took the lives of JENNIFER HAWKE-PETIT and her daughters, HAYLEY and MICHAELA, family members visited the home site to see if anything of value could be salvaged. Little was left.

One exception was the many flowers and foliage plants that Bill and MICHAELAhad planted and maintained over the years. One flower in particular was dear toMICHAELA—her Four O’Clocks. Because of that, the Four O’Clocks were dug up, brought to Plainville, CT and replanted.

Michaela’s Garden Project is designed to encourage area families and youth to become more involved in community service.

For the past three summers Michaela’s Four O’Clocks have been re-planted from harvested seeds. As a result, enough seeds have been collected to begin the Michaela’s Garden Project. The summer of 2010 was our first mass propagation effort. With the help of volunteer gardening enthusiasts, Cub Scout Pack 49 of Plainville, Cub Scout Pack 30 of Bristol and other area youth groups, we produced about 5,000 plants—all from Michaela’s original garden. The seeds from these plants were harvested, packed and are being sold in specially designed packs of 25 seeds as a fundraiser for the PETIT FAMILY FOUNDATION.

About Four O’Clocks

A favorite of MICHAELA’s, Four O’Clocks are sturdy, bushy plants with showy red, pink, yellow and white trumpet-shaped flowers. Some blooms are two-toned—usually yellow and white.

Four O’Clocks got their name because they open their flowers in mid-afternoon (about 4 o’clock). The blooms remain open overnight, and close in early morning. They are also known for their strong, aromatic fragrance,

Four O’Clocks are native to tropical areas of North and South America and are often called the “Marvel of Peru”. They are actually perennials that are grown in northern areas of the U.S. as annuals.

The dark green, bushy plants make an excellent hedge or border. Because the flowers are open during the evening and nighttime, the plants are often planted in areas where they will be seen during the early evening and morning hours.

Four O’Clocks are hardy plants, exhibiting good tolerances for dry conditions; however, plants will thrive if watered regularly, especially in dry weather. Where possible, plant in full sun and in well-composted soil. Add a general purpose fertilizer once a month to encourage vigorous growth. Bulbous roots may be dug up in the fall, cleaned and stored overwinter in the dark, in damp peat moss or sand.

Share the Love

You can help grow the project by planting and harvesting seeds. It’s easy to do. Each plant will set multiple blooms over a two to three month period. As each bloom emerges, matures, wilts and falls away, it will leave one seed—about the size of a peppercorn—which can be picked from the bract. Each plant will set dozens of seeds. During and after harvesting store seeds in a paper bag (not plastic) so that seeds can dry. Send us your harvested seeds and we will pack them for next year’s program. Every 25 seeds returned can mean $10 in additional support for the FOUNDATION.

The FOUNDATION’S funds are given to help foster the education of young people, especially women in the sciences; to improve the lives of those affected by chronic illnesses; and to support efforts to protect and help those affected by violence.

The Legacy of The Petit Family Foundation

(“Three Angels” Petit Family Memorial Garden)

 

Some enchanted evening; you may see a stranger,
across a crowded room; and somehow you know, you know even then,

That somewhere you’ll see him, again and again….. 

Who can explain it? Who can tell you why?

Fools give you reasons, Wise men never try….

(Lyrics: “Some Enchanted Evening, Broadway Musical, South Pacific)

 

This blogger had the good fortune to meet and get to know a world class physician, an academic, a quiet family man who devoted his former life to his patients and “his girls”, wife Jennifer, and daughters Hayley and Michaela.  The most recognized survivor of crime in the State of Connecticut, a reluctant hero, is the man known as Dr. William Petit, Jr. 

Ladyjustice has hesitated to write anything about this dignified and tormented man.  The media hounds him. The public is well meaning and generous through many charitable events whose proceeds go toward the Petit Family Foundation and the Foundation, in turn, sponsors many activities encompassing the three missions honoring his immediate family.

This tragedy of tragedies has effected the hearts of people throughout the U.S. and internationally. 

Ladyjustice does not want to exploit nor offend in any way shape or manner by offering her humble opinion.  She remains respectful and has tremendous admiration for the remaining survivors of the Petit family.

However, if a local person who occasionally crosses paths with this man, can offer a perspective as a fellow homicide survivor, and perhaps lead others to donate to his Foundation, why not?  

A wise woman named Susan Murphy Milano recently told this blogger that no crime victim would ever view such efforts as exploitation, because, as survivors of crime, we are a family. Our biological families have been torn from us, helping each other and helping future victims keeps us going on the path of justice for others.   So, in that spirit, Ladyjustice will carry on…. 

Connecticut experienced a “wakeup call” of the greatest proportion when this horrific crime occurred on July 23, 2007.  All assumptions about where “crimes like that” occur (and certainly not Cheshire) were shaken to the core.  This crime was the impetus for landmark judicial legislation, rallied people as never before to implement change in attitudes, to be vigilant about personal safety, to buy and install home alarm systems; to reconfigure our Parole & Pardons board, to create a system of sharing vital prisoner histories at all levels of the criminal justice system; to revamp the process for halfway house placements, to “get to know your neighbors” in the form of kindness and neighborhood watches; to initiate numerous scholarships and charitable organizations in the aftermath for the benefit of others who have aspirations “just like the Petit women”;  attempts to keep (and eliminate) the death penalty in Connecticut;  to create and carry out a legacy for their passions  and… for Bill Petit to have as many reasons as possible to carry on without them. (As of today, due to the current economic times, some of these milestones are still a work in progress but alive none the less). 

And now, nearly four years later, the legacy of this family lives on through the constant efforts of Bill Petit his parents, siblings, his  95 year old grandmother and extended family and friends.  

It is a strange kind of purgatory awaiting a trial… as if the trial itself was supposed to take away the past sins of the defendant(s).

(Ladyjustice’s purgatory, awaiting trial for her father’s homicide spanned six years.)  It is this “suspended animation” that wears you down so that by the time the trial is about to commence, you are in a state of mind that perpetuates the wounds and adds further insult to injury. 

This is yet another trying time for the Petit family, currently awaiting the second trial to begin in September for the second defendant, whose name doesn’t deserve the ink, and raises the hairs on everyone’s neck in Connecticut and beyond… 

In 2009, this blogger was in “full court press mode” as the Chairperson assigned to coordinate a huge state agency event held at our State Capitol known as “the BESB Awards and National Observation of White Can Safety Day.”  This event brings together a selected groups of visually impaired or legally blind students and blind adults whose accomplishments over time has served to go above and beyond” in their fields of endeavor or talents in ten categories. 

It is the “Emmy Awards” for the blind community in Connecticut, if you will.   AND, make no mistake…. This is not a demonstration that they can merely perform with their peers while experiencing blindness (and other disabilities).   RATHER, particularly with students, they not only keep up, but often far exceed their sighted peer and are multi-talented in academic and the arts or sports, community affairs, despite their blindness.  No Pity Party Here – Never, Unacceptable!  Most sighted people have no idea what blind individuals and today’s technology can do….  

This event involves coordination of a roster of candidates, nominating committee, contact and invitations with nominees, families, State legislators, municipal officials, the Governor’s office,  catering, facilities management, press releases, TV coverage,  official proclamations, the crafting of a programming script, correspondence, individual bios for nominees, organizing the flow, seating arrangements, entertainment, etc.; etc., AND selection of an appropriate Master of Ceremonies. 

How to get a speaker pro bono, who understands the issues of diabetes and blindness, is committed to the cause and can present in a way that engages the participants?? 

Ladyjustice wrote a personal letter to Dr. Petit explaining her journey with the medical world, personal disability, personal homicide and our agency’s mission and request for a Master of Ceremonies.   ‘A long shot at best, she thought. (Although this blogger’s previous efforts had nearly gotten Mary Tyler Moore twice for this event!)   However, this blogger had more in common with Dr. P. versus MTM. 

Enter Dr. William Petit, Jr….    He could not have been more gracious and apologized for the letter getting lost in the sea of mail.  Long story short, he came to our agency, toured, met with staff, including staff that happens to have MS, and was available for consultations prior to the event. 

Following Ladyjustice’s immense pleasure of introduction, Dr. Petit gave a thorough and thoughtful introduction “prior to his duties”, discussing his work with diabetes research and treatment, his hopes for the future and even read an inspirational narrative in French! 

His MC style was classy, engaging and funny!  He was everything Ladyjustice had hoped for!  He indeed was the man for the job!  And…“the cherry on top of the sundae” was to have Ladyjustice’s mother in attendance, beaming proudly and asking to meet the esteemed Master of Ceremonies!  How perfect!    He was now part of the BESB Family. 

(Post script- Soon to be part of the “New Bureau of Rehabilitation Services” as of July 1st.  So long BESB, a stand alone agency since 1893!) 

Fast forward to June 2011….   The public can read an unusual expose’ of the Petit family story in the June/July edition of Esquire Magazine.  You can’t miss the magazine, which, for some unknown reason chose to include “The Survivor” article with a cover page GQ like male with a woman’s hand suggestively inserted under the man’s belt.  Yikes!  Ladyjustice is no prude!

However, this is not the showcase for a man of his caliber.  A little class please!   I guess, we do what we have to, to serve others for the greater good and let the chips fall where they may, by other tasteless individuals who “just want to sell magazines at any cost.”  

The article begins with a typical event held to raise funds for his Foundation by the many friends and supporters of what was the Petit family foursome, then to a snapshot of his life currently in Plainville, followed by a the sentencing day of the first monster defendant on December 2, 2010. 

It is an account that reminds this writer of a work of fiction, describing glimpses, breathing, gestures, detailed descriptions of clothing, a visceral attempt to “get into his skin.” Ladyjustice is not amused.  This is no fairytale.  Other passages paint a picture of the humanity of what were his former family- stories of his children. 

The torture of being physically bound, seriously wounded and “not knowing, only guessing” what’s going on in the house is portrayed though Dr. Petit’s internal thoughts, back to courtroom testimony, the morning of the Memorial service (Something greater than a private service but less than a full blown extravaganza trying to accommodate the grieving public as well) with a man just out of the hospital trying to hold on. 

The story traverses to the events of the day prior to the murders-the family kind of activities followed by the meeting and courtship days with his wife and lessons he tried to teach his children.  The final pages treat the reader to an insightful account growing up in a working class neighborhood as seen through William Petit, Sr. in a family with several siblings, and Bill described as naturally being a self-starter, a survivor by nature (well worth the read!) 

Could such a normal boyhood existence have prepared this man for his future?  Not a chance….  To be fair, Ladyjustice should ask could anyone write an account that sufficiently covers the landscape of this story? 

It’s doubtful…   Perhaps one or two authors, like Diane Fanning, but very few for sure! 

“What’s if’s” are in the account, those tapes that play over and over in our heads, “had we or others only done things differently”,we might have our family member back in the world of the living.  Ladyjustice advise,  don’t do the “what ifs,” as we have enough self-torture in our lives….  Do the positive things that our family members would have done if they were here now. 

***And please donate to the Petit Family Foundation.  You will find no better reasons to give your time and dollars!

 Link: http://www.petitfamilyfoundation.org/