Not Our Town

Seven years later, the Cheshire murders are still haunting the state of Connecticut
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Photo by Doug Kerr.

Death row. Two tiers. Eight men on the top, two on the bottom, surrounding a room with three small circular tables bolted to the ground. The light green walls are cold and sterile. The doors closing the men into their cells for 23 hours every day are thick and impenetrable. Only small slivers allow the guard — who check on each inmate every 15 minutes — to pass food into the cells.

These 10 men are still here, nearly two years after Connecticut abolished the death penalty, because of the crime of two: Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky. Their crime — a brutal murder of three women in the peaceful suburbs of Connecticut — played an outsized role in the state’s reckoning over whether it was within its right to put a human being to death.

I had come to Northern Correctional Institution — the home of the state’s death row, nestled in the woods of Somers, Conn. — to learn more about the ramifications of the crime nearly seven years later, and to get a sense of how the two men who uprooted suburbia’s sense of security live.

 ***

The series of events that brought me to Northern began on July 23, 2007 in the quiet town of Cheshire, Conn. Situated in the middle of the state, Cheshire is a town of 28,000 people and long driveways leading to colonial homes. Parents walk their children to intersections, where they hop on buses driving to good schools. They take walks through Sleeping Giant State Park and bike along the Farmington Canal Trail.

On July 23, as evening set in, Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughter shopped for groceries at a local market. Unbeknownst to them, two men — Hayes and his friend Joshua Komisarjevsky — were following them. When the two women left the market, Hayes and Komisarjevsky followed them to their home at 300 Sorghum Mill Drive, a colonial house on a winding street tucked in the trees. A few hours later, in the dead of night, the two men returned.

William Petit, a local endocrinologist and the husband of Jennifer, had fallen asleep on the porch and was dozing peacefully. Hayes and Komisarjevsky smashed his head with a baseball bat and tied him to a pole in the basement. They climbed the stairs to the bedrooms where Jennifer and her two daughters, 11-year-old Michaela and 17-year-old Hayley, were sleeping. The two men woke them by holding their hands over their mouths so they couldn’t scream, then tied them to their beds.

Over the next several hours, Hayes and Komisarjevsky drank beer out of the Petits’ fridge and waited for the sun to come up. When night turned into a rainy morning, Hayes brought Jennifer to a local Bank of America and forced her to withdraw $15,000. While doing so, she slipped the teller a note begging for help. The bank employees let her walk back to the car with Hayes.

Back at the Petits’, Hayes and Komisarjevksy turned the house into a nightmare. In the course of 30 minutes, Jennifer was strangled and raped. Both daughters were sexually assaulted. The two men poured gasoline throughout the house. One of them lit a match.

The flames singed the leaves of the trees around the house.

 ***

“It was just one of these crimes that seemed so out of character with this quiet town,” my mother said.

Thirty miles away and two years older than Michaela, I lived in Westport, a town not unlike many other Connecticut towns — Madison, Guilford, Fairfield, Newtown, Cheshire. Like many parents — including, perhaps, the Petits — mine moved to Westport so their children could go to good schools and play on quiet streets at dusk without fear. The houses on my street did not look dissimilar from those on Sorghum Mill Drive.

The current state of these towns, such as Westport and Cheshire, came out of a mid-century rush for security and stability in the lands beyond the cities. Murders don’t happen in places like Westport or Cheshire. The last murder in Westport, I recall a policeman named “Officer Friendly” telling my fifth-grade class, happened a generation ago.

We had nothing to worry about, or so we who grew up and lived in the suburbs thought. Then Cheshire happened.

***

 “I was coming home from the Adirondacks … and driving without a care in the world in my convertible,” said Thomas Ullmann, the Chief Public Defender for the City of New Haven. The date was July 24, 2007. “I got a call from a lawyer in my office and she said, ‘Did you hear what happened in Cheshire?’”

He was pale by the time he hung up the phone. He knew that prosecutors would seek the ultimate punishment: the death penalty. And as not only the public defender for the New Haven Judicial District — which, since it includes Cheshire, made him responsible for defending Hayes — but also a longtime advocate against the death penalty, he knew it would be up to him to stop the decision.

Ullmann works in an office at the end of a dimly lit hallway in the New Haven County Courthouse. His papers are piled two, sometimes three feet high on his desk and the floor. Cheshire, he said, was “one of those cases that tweaked everybody.”

I asked him why. Why, I wondered, did my mother remember this murder so vividly, when there have been hundreds of murders in cities such as New Haven, Bridgeport, and Hartford since? My mother, for instance — and for that note just about anyone in the “towns” — has never heard of Qhayshaun, Jaqueeta and Wanda Roberson — 8, 21, and 42, respectively — who were killed in a New Haven arson in 2011.

“Most of the time crime doesn’t affect people in our suburban communities,” Ullmann said. “You don’t have these kinds of personal, physical crimes.”

Those crimes only happen in the cities, or so the upper and middle classes expected when they fled. That is why, Ullmann said, the death penalty was brought to bear. Of the 13 murders in New Haven in 2007, and the 94 between then and the abolition of the death penalty in April 2012, none resulted in the death penalty. Ullman’s beliefs suggest that, had Jennifer, Michaela, and Hayley been three of those 107 — had they lived in a two-bedroom apartment in New Haven instead of a colonial in Cheshire, had Hayley not gone to a prestigious preparatory school and been planning to go to community college instead of Dartmouth, had they been black and poor instead of upwardly mobile and white — the punishment might have been different. It is hard to disagree with him.

***

In the three years after the murders, Ullmann fought vainly — against the state of Connecticut, against William Petit, who miraculously hobbled out of the burning house and survived, and at times against Hayes himself — to save Hayes from Northern Correctional Institution’s death row.

The death penalty was not the only choice. Ullmann and his team offered guilty plea after guilty plea on Hayes’s behalf. Had the prosecution accepted the pleas, Hayes would have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release, which in Connecticut means that the inmate can never, under any circumstances, go free. Hayes would have been sent to Northern Correctional Institution within weeks of the crime, where he would have stayed, far away from Cheshire, for the rest of his life. His presence on the cover of the Hartford Courant and, as a result, on the doorsteps of Cheshire households, would have been minimal. The trauma endured by neighbors, friends, and the town as a whole would not have been reiterated over, and over, and over again.

But the prosecution would not budge. Death, to them and to Connecticut, where 74 percent of residents polled in a 2011 survey said they wanted Hayes executed, was the only punishment severe enough.

In late January 2010, Hayes tried to kill himself by overdosing on Thorazine, an anti-psychotic medication.

“Even though I was his lawyer, I was kind of rooting for him because he was controlling his situation,” Ullmann recalled.

But death by his own hand was not acceptable. That privilege the state reserved for itself. Prison guards rushed Hayes to the intensive care unit at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington. After barely surviving, Hayes was returned to death row. A month later, the state of Connecticut resumed the trial which sought to put him to death. The irony was not lost on Ullmann or on myself.

On Dec. 1, 2010, 12 jurors condemned Hayes to death.

“Today, when the court sentences Steven Hayes to death,” Ullmann told the court, “everyone one of us becomes a killer. We all become Steven Hayes.”

 ***

Throughout Steven Hayes’s trial and sentencing, the question of the death penalty was playing out across the state. In 2009, the state legislature voted to abolish the punishment, but the measure failed to gain Governor Jodi Rell’s signature. When she vetoed the bill, Rell cited William Petit, who had become a forceful death penalty advocate after surviving the home invasion.

In November, I called the Petit Family Foundation — created in memory of Jennifer, Michaela, and Hayley — seeking to talk to Petit, who has continued to advocate for the death penalty in the six years since the murders. But while demanding two men’s deaths, he has also rediscovered life. He remarried, to a younger woman he got to know through the foundation. They recently had a son. In October, he announced he was contemplating a run for Congress against Elizabeth Esty, an anti-death penalty Democrat. Support for the death penalty would be the central plank of his platform.

Two weeks and a series of emails later, I received a note from an assistant at the foundation, strangely enough also named Hayley, reading, “Hi Matthew, Below, please find an article that Dr. Petit asked me to forward over to you.”

The article was titled “The Death Penalty: Do Innocents Matter,” by Dudley Sharp, who is, in his own estimation, “the most active pro-death penalty person in the country.” The article pointed out that “living murderers are, infinitely, more likely to harm and murder, again, than are executed murderers — a truism.”

It’s this kind of security, Sharp says, that leads an overwhelming proportion of Connecticut residents to support the death penalty.

***

In 2012, the Democrat-controlled legislature voted again to repeal the death penalty. This time, a different governor, Dannel Malloy, signed the bill.

But it did not change anything for Hayes and Komisarjevsky — who were sentenced to death in 2010 and 2011, respectively— or the eight other men on death row. The law only applies to those who commit capital offenses after the date of Malloy’s signature: April 25, 2012. In keeping the death penalty for the 10, Ullmann says, Connecticut merely sought a way to put Hayes and Komisarjevsky in an execution chamber.

“This prospective bill passed solely to avoid the issue of the Cheshire guys,” Ullman says. “They’ll try to kill the other guys to get to the Cheshire guys.”

One person cannot be sentenced for the crime of another. But the Connecticut legislature, it seems, did just that.

 ***

For now, though, Hayes and the other death row inmates are in stasis. Few think Hayes will die by the hand of the state. His own hand or nature will likely bring an end to his life. Multiple times, Hayes has tried to drop his appeals and be executed, the same way Michael Ross — the only man executed in Connecticut since 1960 — died in 2005. But the state of Connecticut, both the public appellate lawyers and the state attorney’s office, won’t let him. To let Hayes have any agency in his death would be to give him too much control. Or so the reasoning goes.

From his office on the second floor of the prison, Warden Edward Maldonado can see the row, just like any other part of the prison, through a television screen on the wall opposite his desk. The other walls are covered with photos of his daughter.

I asked him what he thought about the death penalty. His job is not political, he reminded me. He just does what the law tells him to do.

“Yes, the death penalty has been abolished,” said Deputy Warden Karen Martucci, who sat on a gray upholstered chair in Maldonado’s office. “But as far as the Department of Corrections is concerned, it hasn’t.”

Every day, Maldonado walks through death row, knowing that one day he might play a role in one of their executions.  Usually, few words are exchanged.

“The inmates on death row,” Maldonado said, “are pretty quiet.”

***

 After leaving the prison, I drove not to New Haven, but to Cheshire. Off of Route 10, I turned left onto Mountain Road and then, a mile later, came to the intersection with Sorghum Mill Drive. The street first winds left and then right, climbing up a small hill by colonial homes neither small nor large, but rather what we might hope a prosperous and peaceful life would provide.

Number 300 stands on a corner at the top. The house is gone, replaced now by a memorial that could be easily mistaken for any other suburban garden. There’s a wooden archway in the middle, a glass wheelbarrow, a disordered array of plants, and three birdhouses. A stone in the ground inscribed with “Three Angels” is the only indication three women died here. The memorial makes it easy to forget.

Maybe wanting to forget, though, is the problem. In suburbia, we want to forget what happened at 300 Sorghum Mill Drive not only because it is painful, but because it trampled the notion that a place only a couple of miles away from the inner city — perhaps, like Hamden to New Haven or Fairfield to Bridgeport — can be removed from all that is bad. It is that mindset that, as Ullmann said, leads to more outrage over a suburban death than an urban death. It is that mindset that justifies — by way of shock, trauma, and fear — the ultimate punishment that is, as Ullmann called it, “the mark of a barbaric society.” It is that mindset that will lead a state to kill eight in order to kill two.

Standing in the garden, I tried to overcome the barrier that I had grown up with, to consider that the suburbs were not immune from sickness or from violence. I tried to imagine the flames licking the leaves.

I couldn’t. July 23, 2007 was a long time ago, and those things just don’t happen here.

 

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