NEW HAVEN, Conn. — A paroled burglar was convicted Tuesday of murdering a woman and her two daughters during a night of terror inside the family's home in a well-to-do Connecticut town.
Steven Hayes, 47, was convicted of capital felony, murder, sexual assault and other counts by a jury that heard eight days of gruesome testimony. The verdict triggers the trial's second phase, beginning Oct. 18, in which the same jurors will decide if Hayes should be executed or face life in prison.
Prosecutors said Hayes and another ex-con, Joshua Komisarjevsky, broke into the family's house in Cheshire in 2007, beat the girls' father with a baseball bat and forced their mother, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, to withdraw money from a bank before sexually assaulting and strangling her.
Then they tied the girls, ages 11 and 17, to their beds, put pillowcases over their heads, poured gasoline on or around them and set the house on fire, authorities said. The girls died of smoke inhalation.
The sole survivor, Dr. William Petit, appeared to hold back tears as the verdict was read. His head down, he sucked in his bottom lip.
“We did our best to keep our faith in God that justice would be served,” Petit said afterward, adding he hoped jurors would use “the same diligence and clarity of thought” as they consider the penalty phase.
“There is some relief but my family is still gone,” Petit said, his father and other relatives clutching him. “It doesn't bring them back. It doesn't bring back the house that we had.”
Hayes showed no emotion as he stood for the verdict.
His defense admitted his involvement and conceded most of the evidence on the first day, but his attorneys blamed co-defendant Joshua Komisarjevsky for being the aggressor. Komisarjevsky faces trial next year and also could be sentenced to death.
Defense attorneys spent much of the trial focusing on Komisarjevsky's role. They pointed to graphic photos of 11-year-old Michaela found on Komisarjevsky's cell phone, and Hayes' attorney, Tom Ullmann, said Komisarjevsky escalated the violence at every critical point, starting with William Petit's beating.
Prosecutors rejected that argument, saying the two men were equally responsible for the crime.
The crime drew comparisons to “In Cold Blood,” Truman Capote's chilling book about the 1959 murders of a Kansas family. It also led to tougher laws for repeat offenders and home invasions.
Last year, Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed a bill that would have abolished the death penalty in Connecticut, saying the state cannot tolerate people who commit particularly heinous murders. William 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.”
Komisarjevsky spotted the mother and her two daughters at a supermarket, followed them to their Cheshire home, then returned later with Hayes, authorities say.
During the trial, authorities played text messages between the men hours before the crime in which Hayes messaged Komisarjevsky that he was “chomping at the bit to get started.”
Authorities say the men were caught fleeing the scene.
Hayes, still reeking of gasoline, gave an emotionless confession to police in which he said he was financially desperate when the men hatched a plan to break into a house, tie up the family, rob them and flee. But Hayes said “things got out of control,” a detective testified.
Hayes told authorities he sexually assaulted Hawke-Petit after Komisarjevsky, 30, told him he had to — to “square things up” — because Komisarjevsky had sexually assaulted Michaela, a detective testified.
A prison officer, Jeremiah Krob, said he overheard Hayes tell another inmate that he killed Hawke-Petit after Komisarjevsky told him he had to do it.
Hayes said Komisarjevsky sexually assaulted Michaela, took cell phone pictures of her that he tried to e-mail to friends and doused her in gasoline, Krob testified. Krob said Hayes admitted pouring gas on the stairs but told the other inmate he didn't believe he could be charged with arson because he didn't light it.
Jurors apparently agreed: After five hours of deliberations, they convicted him of 16 counts total, including two charges of sexually assaulting Hawke-Petit. He was acquitted of one count — arson.
William Petit told the jury he woke up on his couch the morning of July 23, 2007, feeling terrific pain and the sensation that blood was running down his face. He saw two people standing nearby.
“If he moves, put two bullets in him,” Petit recalled one of the assailants saying.
Petit said the men took him to his basement and tied him to a post. Scattered around him were pillows and a quilt given to one of his daughters as a graduation gift.
Jurors, who saw photos of the victims, charred beds, rope, ripped clothing and ransacked rooms, wept at times during the eight days of testimony.
A medical examiner described a painful and panic-stricken smoke inhalation death likely suffered by Michaela. Seventeen-year-old Hayley's injuries suggested she was burned as she tried to flee.
When asked after the verdict how he would find the strength to continue to attend the penalty phase and then another trial filled with horrifying testimony, Petit said: “If your family was destroyed by evil, I think you would all try to do the same thing and be there for your family.”