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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How A Town Heals From Mass Tragedy

 

In the aftermath of the mass homicides of Newtown, CT, I wondered how a town collectively heals after such events.  We have innumerable examples from which to draw for purposes of discussion. What follows is not an exhaustive account, but a sampling of how each tragedy blossomed into positive remembrances.

The primary element,  the motivation in each of these true life occurrences was that the focus was on the humanity and goodness of the victim(s) lost versus the event itself.

The Aftermath of July 23, 2007: The Petit Family Murders:

 

Petit family

Petit Family (photo CBS News)

Following a rampage that included stalking, kidnapping, bank robbery, physical restraint, sexual assault/rape, torture ,murder and arson of Dr. William Petit,  Jr and the three Petit women/girls, the State of Connecticut was shaken to its core. Cries for the death penalty for both offenders and an outpouring of collective grief and support were initiated by people around the globe. That one man could survive and ultimately carry on with life is a major miracle.  How did the sleepy town of Cheshire begin and continue on the path of recovery?

Examples:

1) Within the Cheshire playground, Bartlem Park, lined with inscribed bricks, there is one that reads, “In Memory of the Petits;”

2) Cheshire Academy: Employer of Wife/Mother Jennifer Hawk-Petit. (a former nurse), created memorial garden in her name;

3) Creation of the Petit Family Foundation whose multiple missions include the sponsoring of scholarships in the areas of women pursuing careers in science, families of violent crime and Multiple Sclerosis. (Jennifer Hawk- Petit suffered from MS); Also:

The Aftermath of Columbine High School:

Shooting at Columbine High School

Shooting at Columbine High School (AP Photo/Rocky Mountain News, Rodolfo Gonzalez/file)

April 20, 1999 A rampage by two crazed, depressed male students who were outcasts with a death wish with grandiose ideas to make an unforgettable impact on the world before they went down. The bomb failed, but the bullets seemingly never stopped until 12 students, and one teacher was shot dead, 21 others were injured.

  • The Greater Littletown Youth Initiative: After 13 years, this group composed of school personnel. Mental health professionals, law enforcement and citizens continue to meet every Friday to discuss their children, issues and preventative measures to forestall future attacks: A strong emphasis is placed specifically on “Blueprint” programs.
  • A powerful “Lie-down protest” with dozens of participants by the steps of the State Capital the day after the shootings to plead for tougher gun laws.
  •  Rachael’s Challenge: An outgrowth of kindness and compassion begun at the muddle school level- Anti-bullying;
  • Columbine CD Producer Announces New CD Project Honoring Life of Columbine Victim:
  • A new CD project has been launched by Columbine CD producer honoring the life and legacy of Rachel Joy Scott, the student who gained much notoriety from her death in the tragedy at Columbine High School.
  • Honoring Daniel Welcome to the Daniel Mauser website. This site is dedicated to the memory of Daniel Conner Mauser. Daniel was taken from us in the tragic massacre at Columbine High School on April 20th, 1999.
  • The 10th Anniversary of The Columbine Massacre: About 1,000 people gathered for a sunset memorial service at Clement Park, next to the school, where survivors, relatives and current students reflected on the massacre. A dove was released for each of the 13 victims as principal Frank DeAngelis read their names.

 The Aftermath of the Virginia Polytechnical Institute and State University Rampage Shootings

Remembering Virginia Tech Shooting

Remembering Virginia Tech Shooting

On April 16, 2007, 32 students and faculty were killed on campus and 17 others injured in two separate attacks by a deranged student. The massacre prompted the state of Virginia to close legal loopholes that had previously allowed Cho, an individual adjudicated as mentally unsound, to purchase handguns without detection by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The incident prompted schools nationwide to install state-of-the-art notification systems that would broadcast warnings to cellphones, electronic bulletin boards, e-mail accounts and social media. Virginia Tech, especially, began responding to any campus threat.

  • Day of Remembrance: We Remember: Organized runs, candlelight vigils, picnics poetry, music and other events have been part of the remembrance every year…
  • The Annual Day of Remembrance & Website: 32 students and faculty members who were tragically taken from their loved ones and our community on April 16, 2007. They ranged in age from 18 to 76 and represented a variety of academic areas, faith and ethnic groups
  • VT Engage: The Community Learning Initiative: Includes a variety of service projects and grants to inspire VT students to become part of the larger community.
  • The Office of Support & Recovery was initiated after the massacre to facilitate support, commemoration activities, student alerts and provide counseling;

Assassination Attempt of Gabrielle Giffords

Gabrielle Gifford shooting

Gabrielle Gifford shooting (photo/CNN)

The Aftermath of the rampage shootings on January 8, 2011 and attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson Arizona. Six fatalities and 13 additional injured persons were targeted at a supermarket.

  • Americans for Responsible Citizens – Gabby Giffords and husband Mark Kelly’s effort to advocate for responsible gun policies and decrease the power of gun lobbies. ;
  • As of February 2012, the U.S, Navy honored Gabby Giffords by naming a ship in her honor for  supporting the military and veterans, advocating for renewable energy and championing border security,”

 

 The Aftermath of Newtown, CT /Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre- December 14. 2012.

Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting

Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting (photo/AP)

A work still in progress with gifts, donations, honors and remembrances of every variety imaginable. However a few words of caution from experts

testifying before the Connecticut Legislature on “Recovering from National Tragedies: How Schools and Communities Recover” February 22, 2013.  Experts Dr. Thomas DeMaria of Long Island NY and the 9/11 Mass Homicides and Dr. Marlene Wong of Los Angeles spoke on this topic.

 

A couple of the many interesting points to keep in mind when formulating recommendations, and implementing policies regarding the outpouring of support and the physical environment of the event:   

1) Dealing with the outpouring of gifts – It is well-intentioned, but can be a real problem and barrier to healing as schools have to rent warehouses to store the goods and figure out how to distribute equitably is a real problem as well as the  increased expenses incurred. More importantly, the access to celebrities and, numerous material goods is not normal in the everyday scheme of life and should be done with care and caution.

2) It is vitally important to change the entire environment in which the event occurred (if it is not razed) such that children feel safe. Historically, they will not enter an environment where they witnessed violence.  Therefore, changing the physical structure, layout, painting, making it bright and welcoming is very important for their healing.

 3) If it is not changed, the scene tends to attract local voyeurs and curiosity seekers, going to the site, wanting to have their photo taken on site etc.

A sign of hope. Both psychologists felt that there is a multitude of support in Newtown and Connecticut,  and that they are better suited than many small towns to deal with the aftermath.  Link:

 “How a town heals is a measure of the goodness of its people.”   DRG

The Final Chapter: The Jury is Out


hammer-719062_640

“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.