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 388.

    What gives the state the right to act as God and determine who can live or die. It's diabolical that people are so callous as to enjoy the idea of petty vengeance. Putting someone to death is not something that should be taken lightly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 387.

    In my view, the question is not what these criminals deserve - in some cases, they probably deserve worse than the most extreme punishment that any civil society can hand them.

    The question is rather, how civil do we want our society to be, and are these criminals not blackening our OWN souls by pushing us into ever more vile retaliation. WE have to live on with the notion of Justice. They don't.

  • rate this

    Comment number 386.

    380. hellomydarlings

    Death penalty abolished in UK 1969. Homicides have gone from 6.8 (1969) to 12.4 (1997) per million pop. (Parlimentary figure)
    In Arizona, for example of a place that has kept the death penalty, over the same period, homicides have risen from 102 to 409 ( figures).

  • Comment number 385.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 384.

    38 Minutes ago

    Two of the three rationales for execution are fallacious.
    Cost: Due to the lengthy US appeals process, execution costs more than life sentence. (Both stop re-offending.)

    You are unaware then of Prison gangs and the phenominon of gangland (and other) hits being organised in Prisons, surely that would count as "re-offending" and try googlin the Aryan Brotherhood

  • rate this

    Comment number 383.

    For really acute serious crimes like these we really need to take them seriously not an easy death sentence, we need to be looking at new ways of dealing with those that have totally embraced evil !
    Total solitary confinement with absolutely no human contact at all ,no tv ,books, etc, just their own evil minds for company !
    But done properly,still looked after but left alone !

  • rate this

    Comment number 382.

    Death Penalty, it's a cop out for the murderer and its a cop out for society. Having seen on Television the appalling life that inmates have in some of the US's Jails, then surely it is much more of a punishment to sentence someone to 'Life' in Prison than to let the 'off the hook' (albeit that it is, for a short time, a frightening experience)

  • Comment number 381.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 380.

    374. scotjack
    Deterrence: No study has ever shown that the prospect of execution, per se, is a deterrent.

    You could be right, but just check the murder rates out per million since capital punishment was abolished in the UK. That's not a study it's a fact. Why have they gone up so much?

  • rate this

    Comment number 379.

    All you so-called Christians advocating the Death Penalty, read the story of Saul/Paul...the man who slaughtered thousands

  • rate this

    Comment number 378.

    Let God decide. Toss a coin, heads life, tails death. The bible bashers can't object to that, surely?

  • rate this

    Comment number 377.

    mchellwrath -

    Liberal apologists like yourself are half to blame for these scumbags doing what they do. I wonder how high-and-mighty you'd feel about it if it were your family that had suffered?

  • rate this

    Comment number 376.

    My concern with the death penalty is straightforward in that courts get it wrong. As a UK citizen I know that our system isn't foolproof but the system in the USA is even worse as the plea bargaining system allows people to admit to crimes they just didn't commit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 375.

    If body sees a body coming over the rye,
    and a body hit a body shall a body die,
    can a body kill a body - yes a body can,
    you can get away with murder thanks to
    Sidney Silverman.

    Sidney Silverman was the Labour MP who
    got hanging abolished, Lord Longford was the
    Labour Lord who tirelessly fought for the rights
    of Moira Hindley - child murderer. It is always Labour
    politicians who support thugs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 374.

    Two of the three rationales for execution are fallacious.
    Cost: Due to the lengthy US appeals process, execution costs more than life sentence. (Both stop re-offending.)
    Deterrence: No study has ever shown that the prospect of execution, per se, is a deterrent.
    Since the first two reasons do not support capital punishment, that only leaves the true reason – vengeance.
    Admit it for what it is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 373.

    i dont support the death penalty but there are exceptions to every rule and this is one of those exceptions, what they did is evil. hang them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 372.

    These two men are evil incarnate and there's nothing socially redeeming about them. Their guilt has been clearly proven in court. Our society is better off without their presence in it, to ensure that they never again destroy another family. Life imprisonment for them is not equal in punishment to the crimes they committed. Execution is. That's the bottom line in this situation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 371.

    The death penalty shouldn't be viewed as a deterrent.  As a deterrent it is demonstrably ineffective.  As a penalty, however, it works very well.  It is effective in all cases where it's used.
    There are people who commit such atrocities in our communities that they shouldn't live among us.  A murderer's board and keep would be better spent on something more beneficial to society.

  • Comment number 370.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 369.

    353. WWWCitizen
    The cost of being wrong just once is just too high a price to pay.

    If it saves more innocent lives than it costs, is the price too high?


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