Brutal murders spark death penalty debate

The Petit family Three Petit family members were killed and only the father William survived

Three horrific murders in a wealthy American town have reignited the debate about who - if anyone - deserves the death penalty.

Across a leaf-strewn lawn where a family home once stood, in a comfortable suburb of flapping flags, a memorial garden is the only physical reminder of the terrible crimes of more than four years ago.

Connecticut is not the sort of place you associate with the death penalty. It is not a southern state, where support for capital punishment is firmly entrenched and 73% of American executions occur. It is not a frontier state. It lies within New England, in geography, and perhaps in culture, the closest you get to European sensibilities.

Since the death penalty was re-instated in the US in 1976, Connecticut has executed only one prisoner. In 2011, only 48% of the state's residents said they support the death penalty, far less than the national average of 61%.

But the statistics have become meaningless since a horrific crime in an upscale neighbourhood left residents frightened and outraged. Now, a glance at the New Haven Register or Hartford Courant shows that the argument about the death penalty - once thought to be purely academic in this part of America - is very much alive.

Early one morning in July 2007, two men, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, broke into a house in the town of Cheshire. William Petit, a local doctor, sat sleeping in a chair on the ground floor. His wife Jennifer and his daughters, Hayley and Michaela, lay sleeping upstairs.

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"I hit him in the head with a baseball bat, and he let out this unearthly scream."

Komisarjevsky speaks in a disconnected monotone about the night he and Hayes invaded the Petit family home. The police have released the recording of his confession.

"I just kept hitting him until he quieted down."

Dr Petit was tied up. His wife was forced to withdraw money from her bank. Back home, she was raped by Hayes and then strangled to death. Her 11-year-old daughter, Michaela, was sexually assaulted by Komisarjevsky. Both girls were tied to their beds and left to die as the house was doused in gasoline and set on fire. Petit, who managed to escape and alert the neighbours, survived.

Both men were later found guilty of capital felony, murder and sexual assault. Hayes was sentenced to death last year.

Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes Joshua Komisarjevsky (left) awaits his fate, while Steven Hayes has already been sentenced to death

Paula Calzetta was one of 12 jurors who sent him to death row. Now retired, with 17 years as a probation officer behind her, she speaks thoughtfully and intensely about what she heard and saw during the long weeks of the trial.

"It was so clear cut that these men were evil," she says. "There was evil in that house. Evil lives in this world and it was there that night."

The trial was she says "beyond words". What she saw burnt into her mind, burnt into her soul.

As for the death penalty, for almost six weeks the jury sat and listened to the arguments.

"Intellectually, I know it was the right thing," she says. "Emotionally it's a very hard thing to do. There's really no doubt about who did it, which I think makes it much easier to make a decision about the death penalty, because there was no question it was them."

Soon, a new set of jurors must make a similar decision about Komisarjevsky, who was also convicted on arson charges.

There are, of course, other victims of violent crimes in Connecticut beside the Petit family. Victoria Coward lives with her daughters in New Haven. Her son Tyler was shot and killed the same year as William Petit's family.

At first she wanted vengeance, but then relented. Now she campaigns against capital punishment. Still, the rhetoric about whether certain types of murders are more deserving of the death penalty than others disturbs her.

She respects Dr Petit's desire to see his family's killers die. But she disagrees with those who point to the brutality of the home invasion as justification for the death penalty.

Start Quote

It's not really vengeance, it's just the notion that if someone does something this violent, they should pay the ultimate price”

End Quote John Kissell Connecticut state senator

"It's like torture for people like me," she says. "It's like: 'Well you don't match what Dr Petit has gone through. He lost three people, you lost one, he lives in a suburban area, you live in the inner city.'"

In 2010, Tyler Coward's killer accepted a plea bargain that sentenced him to jail for 40 years, with the possibility of parole after 25 and a half years. That trial took place at the same time as the Petit murders trial, but with much less media attention and fewer calls for the death penalty.

Of the men who committed the Cheshire crime, Ms Coward says: "People tend to say: 'Well that was worse, so you need to die.' It's like saying your son wasn't worth anything, and he was. I had him, I carried him."

The last time the state legislature passed the repeal of the death penalty it was vetoed by the governor. The most recent attempt at repeal failed to get through the legislature. The Petit case has had - and continues to have - a direct impact.

Still, supporters of capital punishment in the state choose their words carefully. There is little in the way of blood-and-thunder rhetoric from State Senator John Kissell, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

Protests in Connecticut The only execution in Connecticut in 35 years took place in 2005 and sparked protests

"It is extremely difficult to be given the death sentence in Connecticut," he says. "You have to have done something really horrifically bad against society, against individuals."

Hayes and Komisarjevsky have, he says, focused people's attention. "It's not really vengeance, it's just the notion that if someone does something this violent, this offensive, they should pay the ultimate price, which is the loss of their own life."

It is, says the senator, one way of guaranteeing that they will never commit crime again.

Steven Hayes is awaiting execution by lethal injection. Joshua Komisarjevsky's fate will be decided in the next few weeks.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    I have served on a capital murder case, the author and others here dont know the process. A judge doesn’t determine sentence, a JURY does. Second, a death penalty goes through a great amount of rigor to be applied. There are MANDATORY appeals afterward that take decades. Finally, revenge was never a consideration of mine or other jurors, it was the degree of the crime.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    There are some crimes that display such a lack of humanity that it is possible that the offender cannot be reformed. From the information in this article, it is hard to see that these two could ever be part of society. Should they live, and in so doing cost society a huge amount? They will still interact with people in jail. Their right to life was forfeit when they committed these acts I'm afraid

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    This debate is incapsulated in Alan Moore's famous Batman story, "The Killing Joke", where the Joker captures the police commissioner to compromise his morals. The Joker cripples the commissioner's daughter and forces him to watch her rape. As Batman arrives, the commissioner insists on arresting Joker to show "our way works". It's still debated whether moral superiority is the correct choice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    The death penalty should be embraced more widely. The cost to the tax payer for the life imprisonment of murderers and other violent criminals is exorbitant. Why should they have any human rights anyway? They didn't live by respecting other's human rights.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    As long as life in prison really means life, then I can't think of any better punishment than being confined to a small cell for the rest of your living days. Death isn't the 'ultimate punishment' it's the ultimate release.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    tmliddle: You are tragically oversimplifying the problem. The only reason eye for an eye is tempting is because it claims to be simple. "Make each accountable for their actions. Period." That's not helpful or instructive. Unfortunately the world we live in is complex, not a fantasy world where criminal culpability is easy to sort out and the societal costs of crime are easy to calculate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    I don't like the death penalty & would prefer to see it abolished, but there has to be a small window left open for execution if it's the only way to protect society.I think though, those cases would be few & far between.
    Life is sacred, even sorry life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    the recidivism rates are incredibly small after these executions, much safer for the public than some federal judge releasing them because they didn't have color TV

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    I am all for an eye for an eye. If our society would start to get a little tougher on these criminals, maybe there would be less of them. That also goes for a minor who commits a horrible crime. We are forever making excuses for it too much violence/nudity/language on TV or their parents aren't doing the job. Make each accountable for their actions. Period.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.


    Very weak argument.
    1) You can prevent someone from killing again by locking them up for the remainder of their lives.
    2) If you want to prevent people murdering again by killing them, should you prevent people stealing again by cutting off their hands?
    3) In the US it costs more to put someone on death row than it does to imprison them for the remainder of their lives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Yes, put premeditated murders in jail with car thieves, arsonists, rapists and convenience store robbers, and see who rules their society. God knows that those guys need more punishment in their punishment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    PaisleyBlueNose - "We live in a civilized society with laws." That just begs the questions: Are the laws justified? Is an eye for an eye "civilized?" And anyone arguing that DP is "justified" as long as the evidence is "beyond doubt" doesn't understand that doubt can be cast on even the clearest evidence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    "There is little love lost on either sides of the Atlantic but please don't let it color every single HYS!"--FrTed

    Do you not see any color in the article? What might be, pray tell, the purpose of such an piece?
    Yet it is I, the lowly American, who is the instigator?

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Yet again you fail to understand the nature of the US. The death penalty was not "re-instated". Those States that do have it found a way of administering it that was in line with Supreme Court decisions. Other states chose not to pass death-penalty laws at all, and some that did are now having second thoughts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    The cost of caring for and trying the defendant is the only rational measure to base this on. In my opinion, and that of many Americans, a murderer gives up all of their right to life when they make the choice to take someone else's. The only consideration should be what is cheapest for the state to pursue, so the rest of us pay as little as possible for said removal from society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Murder is defined by state. Execution by state isn’t murder. For legal def’n of 1deg murder, prereqs including intent must be proven to 12 jurors who’re carefully selected by prosec and defense. Appeals to death penalty can be many and lengthy, including to the Supreme Court. Death penalty in most cases ensures that killer dies in prison

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Mikey, please see posting 7 from someone living in CT who commends the BBC on its New England perspective.

    I will not be drawn into another of these futile Yank vs Brit slanging matches.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    I don't believe life is sacred or supreme. We live in a civilized society with laws. If you choose to live outside these laws then you must be prepared to face the consequences of your breach. My only view is that the level of evidence needed for the death penalty should be without doubt. Confession, several eye witness or clear video evidence. Forensic is not sufficient for me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    "We are only 25 postings into the debate and the Brit vs Yank argument raises its ugly head yet again. Disappointing"-- FrTed

    FR Ted, I would submit, as evidence, the authors use of the term "European sensibilities" as the first shot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    25. We are only 25 postings into the debate and the Brit vs Yank argument raises its ugly head yet again. Disappointing.

    There is little love lost on either sides of the Atlantic but please don't let it color every single HYS!


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