Komisarjevsky: The Thrill of the Kill in New Haven

Second verse, same as the first: That will be the theme of the State’s methodical and workman-like presentation in the case of State v. Komisarjevsky. The prosecution has no doubt tweaked a question or two to avoid the sort of juror restiveness that caused one juror to quit in disgust over courtroom tedium in the case against Steven Hayes. But nothing succeeds like success. State’s Attorney Mike Dearington is raring to go in round two. He’ll rest, and perhaps retire, when Komisarjevsky joins Hayes on death row.

But this trial will not be a mere replay of the Hayes case. No, Cheshire II has a different defense team. Tommy Ullmann was diplomatic and understated in defense of Hayes. The Komisarjevsky team, lead by Jeremiah Donovan, comes now to scorch the Earth. This trial will be total war.  The defense has nothing to lose but the life of a man hated throughout Connecticut.

Evidence is set to begin on Monday. The defense cannot stop it by lawful means, although it has tried.

Superior Court Judge Jon C. Blue rejected a list-minute series of motions on Friday. The trial will not be moved to Stamford. Newspaper boxes will not be removed from the area of the courthouse. The court will not limit in advance testimony from Dr. William J. Petit, Jr., about his family in the state’s case in chief. 

Why were these motions filed?

Why not file them? Sand tossed into the machinery of death might just stop this state-sponsored savagery from succeeding.

The change of venue motion struck me as absurd. The defense is bitching and moaning about publicity. Yet this case is national news. Moving it closer to Manhattan’s media outlets is inconsistent with keeping things under the radar.  

I chuckled when I read the motion. It was filed the same day The Hartford Courant wrote a puff piece about the hardship defending Komisarjevsky imposed on one of the defense lawyers, Walter Bansley. He’s lost clients, received hate mail, perhaps even been threatened with death, since gallantly volunteering to serve as a Special Public Defender in this case. Perhaps. But he’s also marketed his involvement in the case, listing it among his accomplishments on his website, the same website that until recently told us all that he is the lawyer Tom Cruise portrayed in A Few Good Men. Bansley is a great lawyer. Just why he engaged in the puffery about Tom Cruise is as deep a mystery as Dick Blumenthal’s Vietnam war record.

The fact is defense lawyers speak of their clients in more less the same way that kids speak of baseball cards. Sit near a gaggle of lawyers sometime waiting for their case to be called in court.

“What do you have?” one will ask.

“My guy’s alleged to have robbed a liquor store armed only with a meat cleaver,” one will say in an understated sort of manner, daring the others to meet or beat the challenge.

“Wow,” another lawyer will say. “Well, my guy hijacked a school bus full of kids after snatching the collection plate over at the church.” There is a ferocious sort of competitive pride associated with defending those accused: the more outrageous the crime, the more courageous the lawyer. It is an odd way criminal defense lawyers have of defending themselves against the ferocious reality of what they daily confront.

Bansley has bragging rights. God bless him. No one can trump him. His guy takes the cake. Even Tom Cruise can’t top that. I suspect a ghostwriter is already at work on the book.

The case remains in New Haven. It will be another Twitterfest, with reporters lining up outside the courthouse in pre-dawn hours, at least for a few days. My hunch is that the public is sated with this case. We’ve heard it all before now. The capacity to shock and outrage is diminished by familiarity. Expect big crowds for opening day and a few days thereafter. Then the crowds will diminish some until Komisarjevsky testifies. If you couldn’t get a seat for Cheshire I, you can get one for Cheshire II during the next couple of weeks, while the prosecution hems and haws its way through Hell.

The defense will attack everything in this case, reasoning there is nothing to lose. Forcing the judge to make decisions increases the chances of the judge’s erring, thus creating the possibility for a new trial on appeal. The risk, of course, is that it will lose the attention of the jury for the main event in this case: the testimony of Joshua Komisarjevsky. What will the jury make of this man who has publicly offered to plead guilty if only the state would forego a vampire’s justice?

Steven Hayes did not testify in his trial. His presence loomed like a dark star, a moral and emotional void that caused jurors to recoil in fear. The defense in Komisarjevsky must avoid that chasm. It will seek to present Komisarjevsky as a broken vessel, a man-child trapped in the rage caused by crimes committed against him. The defense will not seek to justify or excuse Komisarjevsky’s savage attack on the Petit family. It will seek to show the jury that there is something to love in this alleged killer, some spark of recognition.

There is a good chance the defense will succeed in saving this man’s life. 

I was amazed when I read Brian McDonald’s In the Middle of the Night. McDonald managed to get access to Komisarjevsky after he was locked up without bond and wrote a quick mass market account of the crime and the defendants. I got a copy of the book as soon as it came out, inspired, no doubt, by the same gory instinct that grips most criminal defense lawyers -- what had “this guy” done? How could he have done it? Just what shape had depravity taken in the form of this killer? 

I don’t know what I expected when I picked up McDonald’s book. But I finished it in one sitting, and when I was done, I was surprised to see how much I cared about Komisarjevsky. I was able to identify with a kid who was lost among the competing imperatives of a chaotic childhood, and who found solace and comfort in nature. McDonald is, in my mind, a powerful defense witness. I would be inclined to try to offer his book into evidence as part of the penalty phase in this trial.  At the very least, the defense needs carefully to consider what McDonald accomplished and how he did it. The author put a human face on the Devil.

Soon enough the trial will become a moral drama. Good, in the form of an upper-middle class family, the family of a physician, living the American dream in suburban paradise. Evil in the form of two killers, inspired by a rage foreign to all that is good and true and beautiful. The challenge to the defense is to lay this Manichean nonsense to waste, to show that good and evil are not extremes separated by an unbridgeable chasm. In the middle of the night, there is a little killer in us all. Just ask Mike Dearington, who now struts the killer’s walk as a minister of justice. Or perhaps ask the jurors, who now sit in the box and are asked to regard Komisarjevsky as foreign, while at the same time sharing the dark thrill of the kill.


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