Oprah On Death Row?

When a car accident slows traffic, I am as morbid as any other rubber necker. Something about the harm that an accident can spawn draws me. The same is true of a crime, only more so. Intentional harm and its consequences mesmerizes.

So there I was in the wee hours of the morning reading a mass market publication regarding the Petit murders in Cheshire. St. Martin’s Press was the first to publish on the matter. Brian McDonald’s In the Middle of the Night: The Shocking True Story of a Family Killed in Cold Blood is a book I told myself I ought not to read. But in truth, I read it in one sitting.

What a colossal waste of time.

Advance press accounts of the book promised shocking new details. The book jacket announced "8 pages of startling photos." Why even the book’s subtitle evoked a classic in the true crime genre, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. McDonald had previously published. I wanted to see what a practiced hand could make of the chaos next door.

The writing is far from Capote. Leaden whoppers such as the following made it past a copy editor: The items stolen from homes by one of the accused amounted to a "veritable cross section of merchandise." Ugh. The photos are already familiar.

The book does not reflect any new and startling details of the case, at least not for readers of Connecticut newspapers. A lurid detail or two shocks, but press accounts of what has thus far been disclosed are already the stuff of nightmares. I read this book with a dawning and depressing sense of what Hannah Arendt once called "the banality of evil." The men accused of the crime, Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, aren’t satanic monsters capable of stunning acts of criminal boldness: they are two men with long histories of drug addiction. These men fought their own quotidian demons, and lost: Everyman as crackhead gone horribly wrong.

What is remarkable about the book is the fact that the author somehow scored four visits with Mr. Komisarjevsky before the good folks at the Department of Corrections figured out what was going on. Just how a reporter waltzed in for a few chats with one of the most securely confined pre-trial detainees in the state is a question that demands answers.

According to a report in The Hartford Courant, McDonald asserts that Mr. Komisarjevsky’s lawyers knew of the author’s visits, and of the author’s intention to write a tell-all in reliance on the interviews. When I first heard that claim, I scoffed. I know Jeremiah Donovan, and he is a good lawyer. Surely, he would not take such a risk with his client’s life.

But about two-thirds of the way through the book I noticed that I was growing strangely sympathetic to Mr. Komisrajevsky. Why, the young man is reportedly brilliant. He loves nature. He has shown compassion to suffering people at points in his life. He is well read. There are people who love and care for him.

I began to suspect that this book was really Exhibit A in the defense’s mitigation case: that’s the phase of trial after a jury has already found the client guilty, but must now determine whether to have him killed. Whether intentionally or not, McDonald’s book manages to render Mr. Komisarjevsky in terms that make him appear as something other than a ghoul.

Not so with Mr. Hayes. Of course, Mr. Hayes did not sit for interviews, or, for that matter, respond to letters that the author sent. Mr. Hayes remained silent, and he appears in this book as little more than as malevonet vector randomly seeking a destination.

This book interests less as a piece of writing than it does as a potential piece of evidence. Who permitted access to the prisoner and why? Whose interests are being served by publication of this work? And, fundamentally, is the Department of Corrections really as clueless as it seems? In the Middle of the Night is a black mark on the state’s criminal justice system. What next, Oprah on death row?

Reprinted with permission of the Connecticut Law Tribune.


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