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Monday, February 20, 2017

Death Row: A Vortex of Sorrow and Hate

Demon Seated, by Mikhail Vrubel (1890)
Many believe that there are high energy centers scattered throughout the world. Just visiting Sedona, for example, or sacred sites like Fatima or Medjugorje, can rejuvenate one's spirit and even bring physical healing. Conversely, some say that there are vile vortexes out there; consider the Bermuda Triangle, or the 1927 Dutch Colonial home located at 108 Ocean Ave, in Amityville, NY.

When I visited Steven Hayes on Connecticut's Death Row in May of 2015, I sensed that, from an energy point of view, he lived in the vilest of places. He murdered a mother and her two children- that could never be undone, and so he paced his cell morning and night, consumed by self-loathing and remorse. He sought escape by watching television, but everything he saw reminded him of his victims- even the commercials. Nonetheless, he kept the television playing just to hear the background noise- to keep himself from going insane.

Sartre wrote that "hell is other people" and this was certainly true of Hayes' day-to-day life on death row. He felt that everyone was after him. The DOC guards seemed to take pleasure in seeing him suffer; their hatred was evidenced in what he perceived to be small acts of cruelty meant to demean him at every turn. He was just a number, not a name. He could not eat food in accordance with his religion. In that vortex of despair, he longed for lethal injection.  

'But you invaded a man's home and savagely took the lives of his wife and two daughters,' I thought, 'What did you expect?'

While on death row, Hayes would see Joshua Komisarjevsky in the recreation room but the two kept a distance. Each man blamed the other for bringing about the horrific events that transpired at the Petit home years earlier. How could either of them set eyes on the other without feeling embarrassment and shame? It was like looking in a mirror.
A pen and ink owl drawn by Joshua Komisarjevsky (2014)

Hayes wondered why he had not been successful in committing suicide on different occasions in the past. A few days prior to the Petit home invasion, he sat in a car in the parking lot of Walgreens with a gun to his head. He had spent the entire night on a heroin binge with a prostitute- coming down from that high, his world seemed desperately bleak. The prostitute came back to the car and urged him to put down the gun. Imagine, he wondered, if she had paused for just a few more seconds in the store, perhaps to look at a magazine. Imagine if he deleted himself from the universe on that morning and the events in Cheshire never took place....

Listening to Hayes tell his story, one gets the sense that he fundamentally perceives himself as a victim of forces beyond his control. As a young child, he watched his parents engage in physical altercations before his father left the family for another woman. Hayes was viewed by others as a peculiar child. He was hyperactive, instigated trouble, and also had the undiagnosed condition of "Pica", which is the habit of eating nonfood substances like paper and dirt. Pica is most common in people with developmental disabilities, like autism and intellectual disabilities. Pica also may result from a brain injury affecting a child's development.

In a psychological evaluation dated March 30, 2009, Hayes reported that he was molested as a child by a babysitter. He started to drink alcohol at the age of nine. In the years that followed, he engaged in a downward spiral of drinking and doing drugs, mostly marijuana, with the end goal being that of zoning out and not having to think- or feel. In turn, his addictions led to numerous convictions for crimes committed to fund his habit: burglary, forged checks, but nothing violent.

On one level, it makes sense that Hayes would reason that it was the substance abuse that plagued him since youth that brought about the Cheshire murders. After all, it had repeatedly sabotaged his life prior to July 23, 2007. However, it doesn't take a PhD in psychology to see that there is so much more to this story. Beyond scientific explanations, like brain trauma or genetic flaws, there is the question of evil. The psychological report briefly referenced "sexual fetishes" but did not elaborate further. Who knows what thoughts filled Hayes' mind in the years leading up to the nightmare that he feels somehow came upon him without warning?

I recently asked a Roman Catholic priest how a serial killer like Ted Bundy can rape and kill people and actually seem to enjoy it. The priest was once a prison chaplain and practiced law before wearing the collar, so he had already given this question much thought. "He let evil take him over," he said.

"Is evil a force?" I asked.

"Yes," he answered without hesitation.

I remarked that St. Augustine thought differently. He opined that evil was the absence of good and that ours was not a universe containing warring opposites of good vs. evil. It may feel that way, at times, but in fact only God and therefore only good ultimately exists. Evil is therefore an illusion. The priest was surprised. "St. Augustine said that?"

"Why are you even writing about this guy?" I have been asked. "And why are you writing about the New Britain serial killer suspect William Devin Howell, let alone visiting him in prison pending trial?" My answer is that I am not so much writing about Hayes, or Howell, or anyone: I am writing about evil, and it seems like a damn important thing to think about. Where does it come from? Why do we live in a world where it exists? For true crime readers and writers alike, evil is a mystery requiring further exploration. There is no shame in wondering about it.


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