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.

Comments: (7)

  • Dr. Petit "walked away as his family was slaughter...
    Dr. Petit "walked away as his family was slaughtered"? Although it isn't the main point of your post, describing the situation that way is irresponsible because it distorts the facts as they have been revealed so far. The injured and disoriented Dr. Petit freed himself from restraints and stumbled into his yard, calling for help, as Hayes and Komisarjevsky set his house on fire and fled the scene. Dr. Petit didn't stroll purposefully out of the home with exact certainty of what was going on inside. Also, saying that he "walked away as his family was slaughtered" implies that he could have done otherwise--that he could have gone back into the house and, like an action hero, saved the day--which is a preposterous idea.
    When writing about the victim of an event as terrible and life-altering as the Cheshire home invasion, one should choose one's words with extreme care and thought.
    Posted on September 3, 2010 at 10:15 am by Cary Gitter
  • Major typo:
    "The lawyers defending Steven Hayes th...
    Major typo:
    "The lawyers defending Steven Hayes this week asked the Court to place some limits on Dr. Hayes"
    Posted on September 4, 2010 at 10:13 am by Anonymous
  • Yipes!
    Posted on September 4, 2010 at 10:18 am by Norm Pattis
  • this is pathetic commentary - maybe anyone would h...
    this is pathetic commentary - maybe anyone would have more compassion putting themselves in Dr. Petit's shoes... I also take offense to the implication that he "managed to walk" out the door. to say it's racial is also pathetic - it is a tragic story and if it had happened to any "color" family, the public outrage would be the same.
    Posted on September 4, 2010 at 11:12 am by Anonymous
  • One of the items reported widely in the media is t...
    One of the items reported widely in the media is this: The accused murderers agreed to plead guilty if the stake would agree to seek a life term rather than execution as a punishment. Who is responsible for getting this tidbit in the media, Dr. Pettit? The accused have competent lawyers, do they not?
    Media reports would not be an issue if the jury assembled agreed to consider only the evidence presented at trial in determining its verdict. Are you saying that it is impossible in a voir dire state to assemble such a jury? I just don’t understand the thrust of your commentary.
    Posted on September 4, 2010 at 2:03 pm by Don Pesci
  • Dr Petit has not held conferences on court house s...
    Dr Petit has not held conferences on court house steps-Indeed he has been extremely reserved and llow key in his dealings with the press turned down hundreds of requests for interviews and Mr Pattis---he did not stroll out of his house as his family was slaughtered. Dr Petit having sufferred repetitiive Traumatic brain injury inflicted with swings from a bat "swung as hard as if "chopping wood"(komisarjevskys OWN desciption)
    He was tied up in his own cellar to a pole with his hands bound and his feet ziptied and a garbage bag over his head. He was semi conscious and unconsicous during most of the time that the crimes transpired-he was roused from his somnolent state by the screams of his wife on the floor above him as Hayes tied her raped her and strangled her-after she'd given him the agreed upon money to save her childrens lives.Dr Petit managed to get his hands loose from the pole in an adrenilin fueled despeartion and had to hop upbilco cellar steps to his back yard calling desperately to a neighbor for help-he had no hope of helping what was left of his family tied as he was defenseless trying to hop up the full set of basement stairs with his feet tied and barely able to stay conscious. Instead he ran to a neighbor to get help and the police.
    Secondly What is your issue with victims who become heros or public figures in the first place-Is it the power that they amasss that you resent? Mr walsh whose son was killed tragiclly by a child predator did not become famous due to his victimhood, nor did Dr Petit. In fact both are two very different men and victims of crime, but they have one thing in common and that is they both took a horrific loss in thier family due to violent crime and dedicated time effort and energy into helping other victims of crime-this is what makes Bill Petit a hero. And if you gave equal time to all of the good that the man has done this would be a very different column. Good works for victims of crimes and victims of chronic illness, depite the absolute right to either curl up in a ball and give up on this world or become permanently enraged-as walsh did for a time-at both the system that failed he and his family in petitx case by allowing two career criminals to be awarded early release parole with nary a criminal history file ans in one case a mere single arrest report this out of over 34 arrests by the time the defendent was 26-well Id say that Bill Petit has had plenty of reasons to become a very angry man. And yet unlike you Mr Pattis he carrys himself with a quiet dignity and a continual committment to help make things better for other victims viathe Petit family foundation and his relatively minimal lobbying for violent crime legislation that affects victims ie parole board improvements to yes, fighting last years attempt by the judiciary committee and the legislature to abolishment of the death penalty-which is most certainly his right. I think that you are merely experiencing a reflexive indignancy for your legal cohorts Thomas Ulamnn and patrick culligan who are currently so very frustrated by the fact that Dr Petit lone suriving victim a? wont just be a good little victim and be quiet and curl in a ball and go away and rather he has become such a sympathetic and popular figure laregly because he was a good man to begin with and he has carried himself with such courage and dignity throughout the atrocities of not just the brutality of the crimes that stole his home his family and his reason for being, but also his innocence via a misplaced faith in a society where most of us follishly believe that if something so heinous were to happen to any of us or our loved ones, the courts and the government would do all they could to set it right.
    But then there is the awful reality that not only is this not true but as a victim you will be bashed and slandered by all sorts of people-like you Mr Pattis, who have your own selfish and comparitively ridiculous agendas, Shame on you,while banal, sums it up the best.
    Posted on September 5, 2010 at 10:05 am by Laurel O'Keefe
  • Take a breath....
    Take a breath....
    Posted on September 7, 2010 at 4:01 am by Anonymous

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