As he emerged from a courthouse where jurors imposed the death sentence in the rapes and killings of his wife and children, the sole survivor of a brutal 2007 home invasion said he didn't expect to find closure.
"I don't think there's ever closure. I think whoever came up with that concept is an imbecile, whoever they are," said Dr. William Petit, who has come across as calm, clear-headed and committed to seeing justice in the trial of convicted murderer Steven Hayes. The random selection and cold-blooded slaughter inside his Cheshire, Conn., home left behind "a hole with jagged edges, and over time, the edges may smooth out a little bit, but the hole in your heart, the hole in your soul is still there, so there's never closure."
Petit said he was "very much insulted" when asked a year ago if a death sentence in the case would "somehow give me closure. Absolutely not."
Closure, a relatively new term in psychology, arises in the context of how people come to terms with terrible crimes, terrorist attacks and other traumatic incidents. Closure provides an opportunity to "come to some understanding and some clarification of a situation," said Manish Pandya, a licensed clinical social worker and psychiatric response team manager at Memorial Hermann Healthcare System in Houston. "Closure isn't essentially forgetting the matter or forgetting the traumatic event or the loss."
Not everyone touched by such tragedies necessarily needs closure, but they need to pass through stages of recovery and healing. "If healing doesn't happen, then the injury does not improve and then as a result, is permanent," Pandya said. That can produce depression, anxiety, isolation and in some cases, self-harm or suicide, Pandya said.
Petit may not need closure to recover from his searing wounds, according to mental health experts who on Tuesday, a day after the verdict in the Petit case, described the path to healing as highly individual.
"People are very different in their ability to metabolize, to cope with stress like this. Some people have a very hard time tolerating even minor levels of stress. And other people are very resilient," said Dr. Charles Raison, associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. As he contemplated the gruesome details of the Petit deaths, he said he didn't think it was realistic to expect Dr. Petit to find closure. "I think the way the human brain's built, it's probably more honest that you're always going to be carrying part of this with you."
A conviction can help some people come to terms with a horrific crime, but "a lot of times, it's not enough and people feel dissatisfied because the damage is done and seeing somebody else suffer because of something evil or bad they did doesn't always help as much as people would hope." Plus, sitting through a trial where a victim's family has to relive the crime "is like tossing salt on the wounds."
Those most acutely affected in high-profile cases like the Petit trial are the victim's family and the jury. But don't overlook the family of the defendant, said James Eisenberg, a forensic psychologist who directs the criminal justice program at Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio. Defendants' relatives "are going through the same grief, denial, and anger" as victims' families. Eisenberg said that attorneys and judges can be deeply affected as well.
The families in death penalty cases frequently are forced to relive the most nightmarish aspects of the evidence and testimony through a decade or more of appeals, going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Eisenberg said. "If the family wishes to invest in those hearings, it is bringing out the same trauma and horror." The most recent Connecticut execution took place in 2005. The previous one was in 1960.
For jurors on death penalty cases, the responsibility of determining whether a defendant lives or dies can be disturbing. "There are cases where jurors report post-trial that they have trouble processing this. They have dreams about it. They have nightmares about it. They ruminate about it," said Solomon Fulero, an attorney and psychologist who teaches at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio. "It's hard to imagine if you're not on the jury the effect of hearing about the kinds of things people do to each other."
Some jurors have suffered heart attacks while serving, and Fulero said the psychological stress persists "at the very least, a year post-trial."
Other jurors manage to work through the psychological aftereffects, either on their own, with the help of counseling, and often with the support and fellowship of fellow jurors. Many jury panels become cohesive and hold reunions that allow them to process some of most troubling aspects of the cases in which they've reached verdicts and determined sentences.
Executions don't eliminate the emotional grief that can plague many courtroom players. Eisenberg mentioned a defense attorney friend who remains troubled two years after attending his first execution "even though he felt justice had been done in the case." Even the judges who preside are subject to the psychological stresses of these cases, especially when the circumstances are as extraordinary as those in the Petit case.
The ability to transform grief into something constructive distinguishes those who adjust to enormous psychological blows like the brutalization of the Petits, from those who sink into the depths of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, psychologists and psychiatrists say.
Petit said he would devote himself to keeping the memories, spirit and activism of Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 47; Hayley Elizabeth Petit, 17; and Michaela Rose Petit, 11, alive through the Petit Family Foundation. The races, tournaments and other events already scheduled for 2011 will support education, particularly of women in the sciences, and helping those affected by chronic illness and violence.
"There's a lot of evidence when you've undergone something extraordinary, in this case extraordinarily bad, your life has changed and you are no longer exactly in the realm of the ordinary. When you see people who in some way heal from something like this, what they've often done to help themselves heal is to change their lives and dedicate their lives now to helping other people in the same situation," Raison said. He said organizations founded by child abuse victims and victims of drunk driving demonstrate how people with horrific experiences chose to turn those experiences around "rather than drowning in it themselves"
Such efforts provide "a sense of meaning and a sense of purpose. It doesn't heal all wounds, but it can make life meaningful again and make a person feel it's worth living."