1 of 2 suspects goes to trial this week in ‘07 Conn. home invasion where mom, 2 daughters died

By John Christoffersen, AP
Sunday, September 12, 2010

Conn. man’s trial to open in fatal home invasion

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — They were a model family living in an affluent suburb. William Petit was a prominent doctor. His daughter was on her way to Dartmouth, hoping to follow in his footsteps. His wife had multiple sclerosis and the family was active in efforts to raise money to fight the disease.

But a chance encounter with a career criminal at a supermarket in July 2007 destroyed the family, authorities say. Joshua Komisarjevsky (koh-mih-sar-JEV’-skee) spotted Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters at the store and followed them home, then returned later with his friend Steven Hayes and together they severely beat Petit and killed his wife and daughters, authorities say.

The crime drew comparisons to “In Cold Blood,” Truman Capote’s chilling book about the 1959 murders of a Kansas family. It prompted a special session of the legislature and spurred more residents to buy guns.

Hayes heads to trial this week.

Both defendants have offered to plead guilty in exchange for life sentences, but prosecutors, seeking the death penalty for both, pushed for trials, defense attorneys said, forcing the state to revisit the unsettling crime and its lone survivor to relive it in the courtroom.

“It left the state shocked and people feeling vulnerable in the sense that it happened in a town where violence rarely occurs and it happened in a way that shook civilization, people’s idea of civilization,” said Rich Hanley, journalism director at Quinnipiac University.

Dr. Petit is scheduled to testify early in the trial, which is expected to last about a month.

After a recent court hearing, he said he welcomed hearing the names of his wife and daughters in court.

“Most of the process tends to be one of depersonalization,” Petit said. “I was actually pleased to hear their names to show it was personal, they were people, living people. They can’t be there to give their side of the events.”

Hayes and Komisarjevsky, two paroled burglars, are accused of beating and tying up Dr. Petit, taking his family hostage and forcing his wife to withdraw money from a bank.

Hayes, 47, is accused of sexually assaulting and strangling Hawke-Petit. Komisarjevsky, 30, is charged with sexually assaulting 11-year-old Michaela. The two allegedly tied Michaela and her 17-year-old sister, Hayley, to their beds, poured gasoline on and around them and set the house on fire, killing the girls, authorities say.

Dr. Petit managed to escape.

Hayes and Komisarjevsky fled the burning home in the family’s car and were caught after ramming several police cruisers, authorities said. Hayes was wearing Hayley’s school cap, police say.

The pair, each with more than 20 burglaries on their records, had spent time in the same Hartford halfway house. At the time of the killings, both were free on parole after serving time for 2003 burglary convictions.

Hayes’ murder trial starts Monday in New Haven Superior Court. If the jury convicts Hayes, the same panel will weigh his fate in the penalty phase. Once the Hayes case is finished, Komisarjevsky’s will be scheduled.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys have declined to comment on the case, citing a court-imposed gag order.

In a state full of well-to-do towns, Cheshire stands out. With a population of about 29,000, it has a median household income of about $100,000, according to the U.S. Census, and a median home value of about $320,000 this year, according to the Warren Group.

The town was designated the Bedding Plant Capital of Connecticut by the General Assembly because of its abundance of bedding plant growers, and Connecticut Magazine last year ranked it the fourth best town to live in.

The Petit home invasion and deaths have had an effect. Gun permit applications in Cheshire rose from 33 in 2006 to 81 the year of the crime to 125 last year, police say. More residents bought security systems and dogs.

“It’s like the Lindbergh baby kidnapping,” said Bruce Koffsky, a defense attorney who has tried death penalty cases, recalling the abduction and death of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh’s toddler in 1932. “It has been burned into the consciousness of the community.”

The Petit case led to tougher laws for repeat offenders and home invasion.

Last year, the legislature voted to repeal the state’s death penalty, but Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed the bill, saying the state cannot tolerate people who commit particularly heinous murders. Dr. Petit actively lobbied in favor of keeping capital punishment and thanked Rell for her veto, saying it was “what is required to maintain the fabric of our society.”

Connecticut executed its first inmate in decades on May 13, 2005, when serial killer Michael Ross was put to death by lethal injection after he willingly halted his appeals. It was the state’s and New England’s first execution since 1960.

Petit has kept busy attending court hearings, lobbying and carrying on the charity work of his family. He has said he’s coping by trying to recall good memories with his family.

“It’s very emotional,” Petit said after a recent pretrial hearing. “It conjures up lots of sadness, puts a lot of stress and strain on the family.”

The family’s house was torn down, but a remembrance garden was created in its place, filled with flowers in the shape of a heart and a brick sign that reads “Three angels.”

“My heart breaks for Mr. Petit,” said Mim Ramadei, 60, who was walking recently in the woodsy neighborhood filled with large colonials.

“He’s a remarkable man,” said her friend, Maddy Tannenbaum, a 57-year-old audiologist who lives nearby.

Hayes and Komisarjevsky were caught fleeing the scene and gave incriminating statements to police, authorities say. Hayes told police “things just got out of control,” a detective testified last month.

Hayes’ attorneys will focus on trying to spare him the death penalty, such as by pointing out his troubled mental state at the time of the crime, said Hugh Keefe, a defense attorney in New Haven who has no connection to the case.

“This case is all about the death penalty,” Keefe said. “The evidence is overwhelming.”

Hayes, who tried to kill himself in prison, told the judge in April that he wanted to plead guilty. He changed his mind under pressure from his attorneys.

Hayes and Komisarjevsky have tried to blame each other for escalating the crime.

will not be displayed