Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Warning: not an easy read -- Reliving Horror in a Test for the Death Penalty

The New York Times


January 19, 2010

Reliving Horror in a Test for the Death Penalty


NEW HAVEN — More than two years later, the details still have the power to horrify.

In the middle of the night, two parolees break into a tidy clapboard house in the central Connecticut town of Cheshire. They club the father, a doctor, and tie him up.


One of them rapes and strangles the mother, the authorities say. The other molests one of the daughters, 11-year-old Michaela. The father breaks free and shouts for help. But the intruders have set a fire: The girls, Michaela and Hayley, 17, tied to their beds, die of smoke inhalation.


The triple murder on Sorghum Mill Drive — widely compared to the Kansas killings in Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” — has transfixed the state ever since. The suspects, both habitual criminals, were arrested a block from the house. The crime prompted a searching review of the state legal system that had freed them.


Now, jury selection in the first of their capital murder trials is set to begin Tuesday, though both defendants tried and failed to avoid trial by offering to plead guilty in exchange for sentences of life in prison.


But in Connecticut, this is more than a murder case. It is a raw test, not only of whether these men deserve execution, but also of public and political sentiment on capital punishment itself. It is a case so well known in the state, fraught with so much emotion, and with so much potential to shape the thinking about capital punishment here, that the selection of 12 jurors and eight alternates could take six months.


“All of the things that are about to play out in the Cheshire case will have a tremendous effect on the death-penalty debate in this state,” said State Representative Michael P. Lawlor, a Democrat from East Haven.


Mr. Lawlor helped lead a failed effort to repeal capital punishment in the state last year. It was an effort that showed, even before the first juror could be selected, the power of the Cheshire murders to roil debate.


Both houses of the General Assembly voted last spring to end capital punishment in future cases. But first, legislators heard a riveting plea from the father who survived that unimaginable night in July 2007, Dr. William A. Petit Jr.

“My family got the death penalty,” he testified in March, “and you want to give murderers life. That is not justice.”


The governor, M. Jodi Rell, a Republican who is stepping down, vetoed the bill to repeal. She cited just one case: the Cheshire killings.


In many ways, the struggle over the Connecticut death penalty mirrors the conversation that has played out nationally in recent years, with three states abandoning capital punishment: New York, New Jersey and New Mexico. But in Connecticut, for some, the death penalty has been seen through the lens of just one crime.


The fall election for legislators and the governor is quite likely to come just as the trial spews out gruesome new details that have been kept sealed. With a potentially crowded field of candidates for the State House, not all of whom have yet weighed in on the death penalty, and legislators who are now on record on capital punishment seeking re-election, voters could well have the Cheshire case on their minds as they head to the polls.


The defendants will be tried separately. Steven J. Hayes, who is to be tried first, with testimony scheduled to begin in September, was the heavyset drug addict and smash-and-grab thief who was 44 at the time of the killings. Joshua Komisarjevsky was the wiry 26-year-old burglar, a rape victim himself, whom a judge had called a “calculated, cold-blooded predator.” Each has blamed the other.


The trial is to offer talking points for partisans on both sides of the capital punishment issue.


For death-penalty opponents, the case is a model of what they see as the waste of capital cases in time, money and misery. It will be slow, expensive and grisly. If the jury votes for death, any execution would be years away, if it is ever carried out.

Even though the defendants have offered to plead guilty in exchange for life sentences, the prosecutors are pushing ahead with their capital cases. The details of the crime will spill out in court, more than three years after the killings occurred.

Ben Jones, the executive director of the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, said capital cases by their nature delay justice and subject victims to painful trials.


“Here we are two years after the murders,” he said, “and that’s in large part because they are seeking the death penalty.”

But for proponents, it would be unthinkable to treat these acts like other crimes.


“The Petit case is the quintessential case of why people like me believe there should be a death penalty,” said Representative Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., the Republican minority leader in the House, who worked against repeal.


Dr. Petit has become a visible death-penalty supporter, even beyond his testimony in the legislature. In an interview last week, he said that when people commit crimes like those in Cheshire, “they no longer have a right to exist in this society.”

He said he knew the trial would be an ordeal. But, he said, “I need to stand up for what is just in society, and I need to stand up for my family personally.”


The court here will put on display the elaborate machinery of capital cases. The questioning of Mr. Hayes’s potential jurors is sure to focus on the saturation coverage of the Cheshire case across the state and beyond. People magazine, for example, headlined its article, “Horror in the Night.”


The lead public defender, Thomas J. Ullmann, and the state’s attorney here, Michael Dearington, will spend months maneuvering over potential jurors’ views. Because of the intense press coverage, judges long ago barred participants from public statements, so neither lawyer would discuss strategy.


But other death-penalty lawyers said the jury selection would be a legal dance that is routine in death-penalty cases. Mr. Ullmann has already argued that the publicity has made it impossible for Mr. Hayes to get a fair trial now, suggesting that a death sentence would be unjust in an atmosphere of intense emotions.


The defense will draw out potential jurors’ attitudes to try to prove the depth of bias against Mr. Hayes, now a gaunt inmate who is on suicide watch. In response, Mr. Dearington will cajole panel members to say that no matter what incendiary facts they know of Mr. Hayes’s deeds, they can put aside their feelings and vote only on the evidence.


It is a familiar routine, said Stephen B. Bright, a death-penalty defense lawyer who teaches about capital punishment at Yale Law School. “Everyone knows it will be very difficult for jurors to put that out of their minds,” Mr. Bright said, “but for the system to work we pretend that they can.”



Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company


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