Jennifer Hawke-Petit, her husband, William Petit, and their two teenage daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, were sleeping in their Cheshire, Conn., home early in the morning of July 23, 2007, when two men crept into the house. Within two hours, Hawke-Petit and Hayley were raped and the home was set on fire.
By the time the alleged perpetrators were caught, Hawke-Petit had been strangled to death and the two daughters had died from smoke inhalation. Fifty-year-old Petit, though beaten with a baseball bat, managed to escape.
Almost three years later, the two men charged in the notorious triple homicide, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, have yet to be tried. And Monday in New Haven Superior Court, Judge Jon Blue delayed jury selection for Hayes’s trial for at least another week. (Komisarjevsky will be tried after Hayes’ trial has concluded .)
Exactly two weeks after Raymond Clark III, the man charged in the slaying of Yale graduate student Annie Le GRD ’13, pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and felony murder, the Hayes trial suggests a lengthy judicial process lies ahead for Clark as well.
National news organizations have extensively covered both cases, making the selection of impartial jurors a challenge, three legal experts said. One of the public defenders representing Clark, Beth Merkin, said “it’s common sense that in a high profile case, you want to minimize any impact of media exposure on the jury pool.”
In cases as well-known as these, lawyers hope to fill juries with people who at least demonstrate an ability to be impartial despite prior exposure, said New Haven-based criminal defense attorney Paul Carty. Jurors need to be able to “empty the cup of all that they’ve read or heard and let it be filled with information from the trial,” he said.
Given widespread publicity about these cases, it will be a challenge to find jurors who will not feel pressured by how their friends, family or colleagues might react to a surprising verdict, said former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Meyer ’85 LAW ’89, now a law professor at Quinnipiac University.
The state prosecutor handling the case, Michael Dearington, and Hayes’ public defender, Thomas Ullmann, both declined to comment because the judge has ordered them not to discuss the case with the media. The order is intended to limit pre-trial publicity to ensure an unbiased jury, they said.
Meyer said high-profile cases draw attention to the jury selection strategies of the defense and prosecution. The prosecution in Hayes’s case wants jurors who believe in an “eye for an eye,” whereas the defense, he said, is looking for jurors who are open-minded and have a diversity of experience.
As in the Hayes case, the judge in the Clark case, Roland Fasano, has needed to strike a balance between releasing information to the public and not biasing the jury pool, Merkin said.
“But I can’t predict whether it’s even going to go to trial,” she added, because the police investigation is ongoing.
Steven Duke LAW ’61, an expert on criminal law and professor at Yale Law School, said he would not be surprised if the Clark case takes a year to come to trial.
But notoriety aside, Meyer said the most troubling parallel between the two cases is the lack of an established motive.
“Neither case involved infidelity or refusal to hand over money or any other typical motive,” Meyer said. “There are real question marks.”
The state prosecutor for the Clark case, John Waddock, declined to comment Monday.
LONG ROAD AHEAD
Jury selection for Hayes’ trial was halted last week after Hayes, of Winsted, Conn., was found unconscious in his cell at the MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield, the maximum security facility where Clark is also being held. Hayes had overdosed on medication he had been pretending to take for several days. While his condition has since stabilized, Judge Blue postponed jury selection until at least Feb. 16.
Since jury selection began on Jan. 19, four jurors have been selected for the panel, which will include 12 regular jurors and up to eight alternates. The trial is scheduled to begin in September.
But selecting the rest of the jurors to try Hayes may take several more months, Meyer said.
Jury selection in Connecticut’s capital cases can proceed exceedingly slowly, he added, because state law allows lawyers to question each prospective juror one-on-one.
“We need to ask at what point justice delayed becomes justice denied,” he said.
Duke said individual questioning of jurors is an uncommon, but not unheard of practice outside Connecticut. Though jurors are usually questioned in groups to save time, jury selection for murder trials can take weeks or even months, he said.
Though progress on the case has been made, the long road to trial has taken a toll on those involved.
Petit, once a prominent endocrinologist, gave up his medical career after the attack to advocate for tougher sentencing laws for repeat violent offenders. Both Hayes and Komisarjevsky were on parole when they allegedly committed the crimes. At an October 2008 gathering in Woodbury, Conn., Petit said he felt abused by years of waiting for the trial to begin, the Hartford Courant reported.
“Somebody murders your family in 2007, and they tell you they’re going to go to trial in 2010 — what a great system we have,” he said.
Both Hayes and Komisarjevsky, whose trial will take place after Hayes’, could face the death penalty if convicted.
Danny Serna and Esther Zuckerman contributed reporting.