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.