In Connecticut, Petit trial links to election
By Greg Berger, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Tuesday, April 27, 2010
The death penalty debate currently stemming from Steven Hayes’ trial over the murder of Hayley Petit and her mother and sister may become a significant factor in the upcoming Connecticut gubernatorial race. Hayes and the second suspect, Joshua Komisarjevsky, whose trial has not yet begun, are expected to face capital punishment if convicted.
Hayley Petit, who was killed in 2007, was to matriculate with the Class of 2011.
Although the case — which is currently in the jury selection process — is fundamentally a murder trial, its implications will also be a “very intense political moment” in Connecticut, according to Brian McDonald, author of “In the Middle of the Night,” a nonfiction book about the Petit murders.
The Petit case has the potential to “tip the balance on behalf of the Republican party,” Gary Rose, chair of the government and politics department at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., said, explaining that the Republican gubernatorial candidate will likely be in favor of maintaining a policy of capital punishment, while state Democrats typically are opposed to the death penalty.
“It’s going to be a very close election,” Rose said. “A small percentage of swing votes on the issue of the death penalty could be decisive.”
Although the death penalty is not currently a central issue in the gubernatorial race, Rose said, it might develop into a major campaign platform as the Hayes trial coincides with the campaign and election.
William Petit ’78, the father and husband of the victims, wants to testify at the Hayes trial, according to McDonald. If he does, his testimony will likely come about a month before the election.
“Should [Petit] testify at the trial, it’s going to be a very emotional and intensely covered event in Connecticut,” McDonald said.
The trial’s connection with the capital punishment debate may “change things in the criminal justice system in Connecticut,” McDonald said.
Although issues related to the economy, jobs and taxes will be deciding factors for a majority of voters, a “small percentage” — which Rose said he believes could determine the election — will choose their candidate based on the death penalty debate, he said.
This year’s election will also be decided by a “whiter, smaller electorate” than in the 2008 congressional election, Rose said, which will have important implications for the death penalty debate in relation to the Petit murders.
“[There will be] more people voting who have more empathy and can identify with a white, upper-class family that was murdered,” Rose said.
Since his family’s murder, William Petit has actively lobbied to maintain the death penalty in Connecticut, in addition to working to implement tougher parole standards and a faster judicial system, Rose said.
“Some people will feel they owe Petit a vote,” Rose said.
Citing William Petit in the press release on her decision, Gov. Jodi Rell, R-Conn., vetoed a bill in June passed by the state Legislature that would have banned the death penalty. The death penalty will be an important issue in this year’s election, McDonald said, because Rell is not running for re-election, leaving the field open.
Hayes attempted suicide in prison on Jan. 30, The Dartmouth previously reported.
Earlier this month, Superior Court Judge Jon Blue denied a motion submitted by Hayes that would have allowed him to not attend jury selection hearings, according to the Hartford Courant. In the motion, Hayes’ attorneys cited his psychological detachment during the jury selection, but the judge denied the request because Hayes was “alert” during the proceedings, the Courant reported.
Although both Hayes and Komisarjevsky said they would plead guilty to the murders if they were given life sentences without parole, the prosecution chose to deny the deal to pursue the death penalty for the suspects, McDonald said.
Hayes and Komisarjevsky allegedly invaded the Cheshire, Conn. home of the Petits around 3 a.m. on July 23, 2007, The Dartmouth previously reported.
At 9:00 a.m., the suspects allegedly forced Jennifer Hawke-Petit — Petit’s wife — to drive to her bank and withdraw a large sum of money. She then alerted a bank employee that her family was being held captive.
When police arrived at the house, they found the residence on fire. The suspects tried to flee the scene, but crashed their getaway vehicle into a roadblock.
William Petit had been badly beaten, but managed to escape his home with severe head wounds and walk to a neighbor’s house, where he sought help.
Autopsies of Hawke-Petit and her daughters showed that Hawke-Petit had been strangled and that Hayley Petit and her sister, Michaela Petit, died of smoke inhalation, according to the Associated Press.
Hayley Petit had been admitted to the College as an early decision applicant and a women’s crew recruit, The Dartmouth previously reported.
Thomas Ullman, one of Hayes’ attorneys, declined to comment, citing a gag order imposed by the court. Michael Dearington, state attorney for the prosecution, could not be reached for comment by press time.