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Published: Monday, 11/8/2010

Connecticut man condemned to die for fatal home invasion

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — A Connecticut man was condemned to death Monday for a night of terror inside a suburban home in which a woman was strangled and her two daughters tied to their beds, doused in gasoline and left to die in a fire.

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

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

Dr. William Petit, the husband and father of the victims, said the verdict was not about revenge.

"Vengeance belongs to the Lord," Petit said. "This is about justice. We need to have some rules in a civilized society."

He also said it wouldn't bring closure, saying whoever came up with the concept was "an imbecile."

"It's a hole with jagged edges," he said. "Over time the edges may smooth out a little bit, but the hole in your heart, the hole in your soul is always there."

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 with a fellow paroled burglar. They called the co-defendant, Joshua Komisarjevsky, the mastermind and said he escalated the violence. They also said Hayes was remorseful and actually wanted a death sentence.

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 they were 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.

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

Komisarjevsky will be tried next year.

Authorities said Hayes and Komisarjevsky broke into the house, beat William 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, who will be tried next year, is charged with sexually assaulting their 11-year-old daughter, Michaela.

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

The crime 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. Gov. M. Jodi Rell cited the case when she vetoed a bill that would have abolished the death penalty.

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.

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 jury. His attorney, Tom Ullmann, 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, Hayley, had a great future, and his wife, a nurse, had helped many children at the hospitals where she worked.

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. They cited his writings in which he described how his "dark shadow was let loose" as he beat the doctor and the pleasure he got from terrorizing the man's wife and two daughters.

Komisarjevsky's writings, however, also blamed Hayes for escalating the violence by strangling Hawke-Petit.

Prosecutors 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, saw photos of the victims, charred beds, rope, ripped clothing and ransacked rooms.

Johanna Petit Chapman, William Petit's sister, 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 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.



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