Death sentence in home invasion killings

November 17, 2010 8:23:40 AM PST
A man was condemned to death Monday for a night of terror inside a suburban home where a woman was strangled and her two daughters were tied to their beds and left to die in a gasoline-fueled fire.

Jurors in New Haven Superior Court voted unanimously to send Steven Hayes to death row after deliberating over four days. Judge Jon Blue will impose the sentence on Dec. 2.

Paula Calzetta told Eyewitness News there's no doubt in her mind, the jury's verdict to condemn Steven Hayes to death was the right decision.

"It wasn't just one piece of evidence. It was finally just putting everything together," Calzetta said.

The 55-year-old offered little about what happened inside the jury room walls, but said the trial's duration, the graphic testimony, and the gruesome crime scene led to heavy doses of stress and anxiety.

"We weren't allowed to talk about anything or watch anything, so during the course of the two months we held everything inside," Calzetta said.

Juror Joel Zemke explained why it took jurors 4 days to reach a decision.

"Anytime you have a decision that is as serious as this, certainly everybody, every juror took it extremely seriously," Zemke said.

After the verdict, Dr. William Petit thanked the jurors, adding the 2007 murders of his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit and their daughters, 17-year-old Hayley and 11-year-old Michaela, left a hole in his heart and soul.

"I was very much insulted when people asked me if the death penalty would give me closure, absolutely not," Dr. Petit said.

"I feel like I know Jennifer, Michaela and Hayley. You get to know them on a very personal level," Calzetta said.

Dr. Petit personally met with the jurors following the verdict to thank them.

The judge, in thanking the jurors for their service, said, "You have been exposed to images of depravity and horror that no human being should have to see."

The jury foreman, Ian Cassell, told The Associated Press some jurors were initially "on the fence" about life or death for Hayes.

"But given the evidence and testimony and the letter of the law, that's where it brought us," Cassell said.

He said it was tense and emotional in the jury room.

"We had a man's life in our hands, and no one was having an easy time with that," he said.

Asked about the crime, he said, "Everyone was disgusted, horrified. It was awful, awful."

Hayes' attorneys had tried to persuade jurors to spare him the death penalty by portraying him as a clumsy, drug-addicted thief who never committed violence until the 2007 home invasion in Cheshire, a wealthy New Haven suburb, with a fellow paroled burglar. They called the co-defendant, Joshua Komisarjevsky, the mastermind and said he escalated the violence.

But prosecutors said both men were equally responsible and that the crime cried out for the death penalty, saying the family was tormented for seven hours before being killed.

Defense attorney Tom Ullmann said Hayes, who had attempted suicide while incarcerated, smiled at the verdict.

"He is thrilled with the verdict. That's what he wanted all along," Ullmann said.

Cassell said jurors were divided over whether Hayes really wanted a death sentence, but that argument did not play a big role in the deliberations. He said an early jury note indicating divisions over a claim that Hayes was mentally impaired at the time of the crime was just a hypothetical example of a vote.

Hayes will join nine other men on Connecticut's death row. The state has only executed one man since 1960, so the 47-year-old Hayes will likely spend years, if not decades, in prison.

Komisarjevsky will be tried next year. Prosecutors rejected offers by both men to plead guilty in exchange for life sentences, their attorneys have said.

Authorities said Hayes and Komisarjevsky broke into the house, beat Petit and forced his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, to withdraw money from a bank while the rest of her family remained under hostage at home. Hayes then sexually assaulted and strangled her, authorities said.

Komisarjevsky is charged with sexually assaulting their 11-year-old daughter, Michaela. He has blamed Hayes for escalating the crime.

Michaela and her 17-year-old sister, Hayley, were tied to their beds and had gasoline poured on or around them before the men set the house on fire, according to testimony. The girls died of smoke inhalation.

The crime, which drew comparisons to the 1959 killings portrayed in Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," was so unsettling that it became a key issue in the death penalty debate in the governor's race and led to tougher Connecticut laws for repeat offenders and home invasions. Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell cited the case when she vetoed a bill that would have abolished the death penalty.

The jurors were individually polled after the verdict Monday.

One woman was crying and confirmed her verdict in a hoarse voice while a male juror said "yes" loudly and with conviction when asked to confirm his. Hayes was alternately looking straight ahead and to the opposite side of the courtroom from the jury. His attorney sat somewhat slumped in his chair.

Petit said he cried at the verdict, "thinking of the tremendous loss."

"Michaela was an 11-year-old little girl tortured and killed in her own bedroom, surrounded by stuffed animals," he said, his voice cracking.

He said his older daughter had a great future and his wife, a nurse, had helped many children at the hospitals where she worked.

To determine Hayes' punishment, the jury weighed so-called aggravating factors cited by prosecutors, including the heinous and cruel nature of the deaths, against mitigating factors argued by Hayes' attorneys.

Juror Dolores Carter told the AP on Monday that she was tired and mentally exhausted.

"It was a very hard decision. It's not easy to put someone's life on the line," Carter said.

Ullmann had suggested prison would be more harsh than death for Hayes. Hayes told a psychiatrist he had repeatedly tried to kill himself after the crime because he felt guilty and remorseful and feared isolation in prison the rest of his life.

Hayes' attorneys focused heavily on Komisarjevsky, even calling a witness who said his "completely dead eyes" made him look like the devil.

Prosecutors Michael Dearington and Gary Nicholson said it was Hayes who initiated the crime, citing his confession to police in which he said he called Komisarjevsky shortly before the crime because he was financially desperate. They also noted that Hayes took Hawke-Petit to the bank to withdraw money, raped and strangled her, bought the gasoline and poured it in the house.

During the trial, jurors heard eight days of gruesome testimony and saw photos of the victims, charred beds, rope, ripped clothing and ransacked rooms.

Petit's sister Johanna Petit Chapman said the family sympathized with the jurors for the emotional pain the case inflicted on them as they viewed pictures of the crime scene and heard details of the deaths.

"I was crying on the inside knowing what they were looking at," she said. "I can't say enough how badly I feel for them that they got thrust into this because of two people's decision to go in and just destroy life like that."

Hayes was convicted of six capital felony charges, three murder counts and two charges of sexually assaulting Hawke-Petit. The capital offenses were for killing two or more people, the killing of a person under 16, murder in the course of a sexual assault and three counts of intentionally causing a death during a kidnapping.

He was sentenced to death for all six.

Ullmann and co-counsel Patrick Culligan said that the case was treated differently because the victims were white and from the suburbs and that crimes just as horrific involving minorities haven't garnered the same media and public attention.

"To my way of thinking, that's all that these verdicts prove today, that is just how arbitrary and capricious the death penalty is - it varies from case to case and person to person and jury to jury," Culligan said.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)