A Necessary Act Of Contempt In Hayes Trial

When I heard that Jeremiah Donovan stood on the courthouse steps yesterday and held a press conference regarding press reports about his ciient, Joshua Komisarjevsky, I was stunned. There is a gag order in place barring any of the lawyers in the case from speaking publicly. What possessed Jeremiah to flout the order?

The purpose of the press conference was to rebut reports in the press that Mr. Komisarjevsky had anally raped an 11-year-old girl during a brutal home invasion in Cheshire in 2007. The girl, her mother and her sister were assaulted and murdered by Mr. Komisarjevsky and his co-defendant, Steven Hayes. Mr. Hayes now stands trial in a case that has attracted attention worldwide, with reporters lining up in the pre-dawn hours to make sure they get a seat in the courtroom. The reporters Tweet throughout the trial, and write breathless pieces each morning about the horror of it all. How much more can be endured?, they ask, before rushing back in to get one of the cheap seats to endure still more, with sensitivity.

The testimony has been graphic. It's been reported that Mr. Komisarjevsky raped an 11-year-old girl. He then left her tied to her bed as the men poured gasoline through the home of the upper-middle-class family before setting it afire and fleeing. The surviving victim, Dr. William Petit, was beaten senseless and left for dead. He managed to stumble to safety. Auschwitz visited Cheshire, Connecticut, that night.

Mr. Donovan wanted the world to know that his client never actually sodomized the little girl. No, not he. While the evidence may well show that he sexually assaulted the child, he merely ejaculated onto her back. Perhaps semen seeped down to forbidden regions. But there is no evidence of penetration. He was careful to point out that this impression was formed in part by comments made by the victims' family to the press.

I heard this and I thought Mr. Donovan must have lost his mind. This is what lawyers call a distinction without real difference. Why repeat this gore for a watching world? Did Mr. Donovan really think it would take the sting out of a press corp hungry to show how sympathetic it can be to the victims' surviving family? Coverage of the trial resembles a long wake: No inconvenient truths must be uttered in too loud a tone so as not to disturb Dr. Petit and his loquacious, if not telegenic, sister. The family has a public relations firm advising it on how best to pitch its rage and manipulate sympathy in the quest to have a jury vote to kill Mr. Hayes, and then Mr. Komisarjevsky.

But I know Jeremiah well. He is one of the few lawyers in Connecticut of whom I can assert, without reservation, he is possessed of genius. We once had co-defendants in a federal capital case; I marveled at how quickly he could frame an issue. The manner in which he conveyed the day's greetings was enough to unnerve some witnesses. Jeremiah never wastes. Everything is a product of thought. What could he have been thinking when he violated the court's gag order to tell the world his client was perhaps a rapist, but no Sodomite?

Dr. Petit told me. Dr. Petit and his sister wasted no time standing on the courthouse steps and calling for Mr. Donovan to be held in contempt for violating the court's gag order.

Note the irony.

There is no gag order as to Dr. Petit and his family. The court earlier took the position that it had no jurisdiction over them. You see, they are not parties. But they are calling the shots in this prosecution. They want the defendants to die. Even though both defendants have offered to plead guilty in exchange for not being put to death, that's not enough for Dr. Petit. He has lobbied, taken to the airwaves, and pleaded publicly for death. When our state legislature repealed the death penalty last year, Governor N. Jodi Rell vetoed the legislation, citing the Cheshire case.  Dr. Petit has been heard, and is heard from almost daily in this trial.

Connecticut's constitution gives to victims the right to be heard at all stages of a prosecution. But it does not give them party status. When the trial court issued a gag order in these cases, it bound only the parties: the state and the defendants. No one dared issue an order silencing Dr. Petit. It is not at all clear to me wh y that is the case. Rights come, we say in the law, with responsibilities. A person who wants to retain the right to be heard in a judicial proceeding should forfeit the right to behave as though trial were a three-ring circus. 

Which brings me back to Mr. Donovan's contemptuous gambit.

He did violate the court order. My sense is that he did so in order to provoke a hearing. At that hearing he can argue that whatever purpose the gag order initially served is now moot: The gory details of the home invasion are now prime-time fodder. The danger of public prejudice and passion infecting the proceedings is now intensified by the decision of the Petit family to comment frequently to the press. The court should either release all parties from the gag order immediately or impose it on all parties and the victims' family.

It is significant in this case that it was Dr. Petit, and not the state, that called for a contempt order. If neither the state, nor the Office of the Victim's Advocate, steps up to the plate to move for contempt, that will signal the coldest of shoulders being bared to Dr. Petit. Could it be that even the prosecution is weary of this trial as theater of the macabre? There is a resigned sense of weariness apparent in the state's presentation of the case: Are the prosecutors mere puppets?, some observers grumble.

Jeremiah Donovan violated a court order. That is clear. But I say he did so as part of a larger plan. He wants the court to place the scales of justice front and center in this case and to stop weighting one side of the scales with pity. Dr. Petit is right to rage. We all feel pity and sorrow for him. But in the matter of Mr. Donovan's contempt, I say game, set and match to the defense. The endgame is an order obliging Dr. Petit to stop using the press as co-executioners in a game only he really seems to want to play.

A contempt citation could cost Mr. Donovan $100 or so. It will cost Dr. Petit far more, if justice is done.

Also listed under: Cheshire Homicide

Comments: (4)

  • Disagree
    You keep repeating that this trial is unnecessary because the defendants were willing to plead guilty. But they were only willing to plead guilty if the state took the death penalty off the table. Why would they do that?
    Dr. Petit is not the only person in this state that wants these defendants killed. Why should the state agree to take a penalty of their crime off the table when it is clear to all involved, and admitted by the defendants, that they did all these crimes that are punishable by death. If you want to go after the death penalty, fine. Do not say that this trial is unnecessary. It is the defendants who chose to have this trial in the hopes that at least one juror will not want them killed. Eventually we'll see how that gamble turned out.
    Posted on September 27, 2010 at 7:39 am by Emily Davis
  • Jurisdiction of the court
    Norm: I am always saddened when a judge announces that the court is without jurisdiction to control the events that affect a fair trial. A client and I were personally attacked by a "victim" in a case. The court determined that it was without jurisdiction to bar this "victim" from the courthouse. I believe that a very logical argument can be made that when the legislature passed so-called victim's rights legislation that the court was given a jurisdictional basis to oversee those rights. Unfortunately, this tragic case is probably not the best test case for my theory.
    Posted on September 26, 2010 at 5:22 am by MIke Georgetti
  • Comment
    Interesting and insightful point of view.
    Posted on September 25, 2010 at 8:05 am by John Patrick
  • Necessary Act of Contempt
    Pattis is finally starting to get it as a media critic. As I have been saying with reference to the AfPak militarism, in today's world, the media is part of the battleground. This goes for the field of law too. Just as warfare is not confined to the physical battleground, neither are legal contests confined to the courtroom.
    Posted on September 25, 2010 at 7:40 am by Henry Berry

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