Lights, Camera, Kill!
I have my doubts about whether Steven Hayes can get a fair trial in New Haven, Connecticut. He stands accused, after all, of the horrifying rape and murder of a physician's family in the affluent bedroom community of Cheshire, located just north of the Elm City. He and a co-defendant were caught fleeing the scene. Press reports reflect what appears to be a mountain of evidence against the two men. Trial seems like a formality.
At least the guilt phase of the trial seems like a formality. The real drama in this case arises from the decision the jury must make on whether to kill Steven Hayes. It will take a legal miracle to prevent that from happening. Well-placed sources suggest that among the evidence to be introduced at trial are text messages and photographs the killers sent to one another from different parts of the house as they went about their grim business.
Preventing this trial from devolving into the work of a lynch mob has been the work of Superior Court Judge Jon C. Blue. He has thus far succeeded in avoiding the Lance Ito syndrome that transformed the O.J. Simpson trial into a passionate farce. Several months of jury selection were orderly and, by Connecticut standards, efficient. (Why we require individual, sequestered voir dire in the state is a mystery to me; there is no evidence this wasteful process yields a higher quality of justice. The practice merely makes a long wait for trial in the state the norm; in many cases in Connecticut it takes far longer to pick the jury than it does to present the evidence.)
It takes a lot to get a Connecticut jury to kill. This isn't Texas or Florida; you don't see gun racks on cars, and folks here are generally wary of firearms. Indeed, I cannot recall the last time a New Haven jury decided to kill anyone. Passions will have to be stirred to just the right pitch to put jurors in a killing frame of mind.
Dr. William Petit, Jr., intends to do his part to see to it that Hayes is killed. Dr. Petit is the sole survivor of the home invasion. Although savagely beaten and left for dead, he managed to walk out of his burning house as his wife and children lay dying and the killers drove off. His miraculous survival comes, no doubt, laced with a savage case of survivor's guilt. Dr. Petit's rage is well founded.
Since the murders in the summer of 2007, Dr. Petit has become a veritable rock star of rage; he's the state's prime cheerleader chanting "Kill!, Kill!, Kill!," from the sidelines. And no one dares seek to stop him. When he arrives at the courthouse, he is flanked by reporters. A public relations firm guides him, helping to calibrate his message. He has political power. When the governor vetoed legislation repealing the death penalty, she referred to the Petit case. When Petit complains about how long it takes to get a case to trial in this state, the press reports his opinions. He all but gives press conferences on the courthouse steps.
It says something dark and disturbing about American mores than we glorify victims and pay them the heed due celebrities. Does any other society defer in almost hush tones to the most disturbed person in the room? I suspect in most places around the world, Dr. Petit would be pitied, and seen for what he is, a man broken by grief and consumed by a rage than nothing can slake. But why, in the United States, do we make heros of victims? Why is there an Adam Walsh, a Nancy Grace, and now, a Dr. Petit -- folks who transform private visions of Hell into near celebrity status?
The lawyers defending Steven Hayes this week asked the Court to place some limits on Dr. Petit. As a private citizen, the doctor has a First Amendment right to speak. Lawyers in the case, however, have been muzzled by a gag order, a murky and questionable power the court retains over them as offices of the court. But Dr. Petit is no stranger to these proceedings. He is a victim, and under our state constitution, a victim has a right to be heard. But why are victims given rights without attendant responsibilities? Sure, Dr. Petit has a right to heard, but it has no right to transform these proceedings into a circus of rage. With rights, we say to children, come responsibilities.
Thomas Ullman, lead counsel for Harris, complains that Dr. Petit is getting special treatment in this case because he is a white, upper middle class professional. Had the victims in this case been a poor black woman and her kids, the case would not be a media event. Of course, Ullman is right. This was rape and murder in the closest thing most Americans will ever get to Eden: an upper middle-class, white bedroom community.
If Judge Blue is reluctant to limit Dr. Petit's grief work on the courthouse steps, he should lift the gag order limiting what the lawyers defending Hayes can say. The right to a fair trial is too important to permit the court to become complicit in the work of a Grey Poupon lynch mob. Let the lawyers address Dr. Petit's tragic bloodlust in a forum equal to that which the doctor enjoys. Permitting doctor Petit to play sniper in these proceedings is uncalled for.
Dr. Petit is a tragic figure. But he is not a hero. His grief should be placed in perspective, and his point of view appreciated in the context from which it arose: the horror, rage and guilt of a man who walked away as his family was slaughtered. His is the last voice should heed in deciding what justice requires. Leaving him alone on the courthouse steps to hold press conferences transforms the pursuit of justice in the sort of ratings war Lance Ito would have enjoyed.