The evidence in one of Connecticut's most gruesome murder trials in recent history has made the jury recoil in horror, but a mother who brought her young, homeschooled children to watch the proceedings insists a good lesson in civics.
Jurors Wednesday heard from Dr. William Petit, the only survivor of the July 2007 massacre at his Cheshire home that left his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and their two daughters, Hayley, 17 and Michaela, 11, dead.
Testimony has included Petit describing the details of the brutal beating he survived and his anguish over the fate of the rest of his family. Hawke-Petit and Michaela had been raped. The girls had been tied to their beds with gasoline doused on and around them before being lit on fire, authorities allege.
Sitting in the audience, which is open to the public, werer Jennifer Ghoshray and her 6- and 7-year-old children. Though experts have questioned her judgment in bringing such young children to a trial detailing the brutal slaughter of an entire family, Ghoshray said she wanted her children to see the justice system in action.
"Both have been told if it's too much, we'll leave," Ghoshray told ABC's Connecticut affiliate WTNH." If it's too much, we'll put our head down."
Though the images were not made available to the audience, jurors and Petit were shown graphic crime-scene photos of Hawke-Petit and the two girls. Petit sobbed openly in court as did one of the jurors.
The defendant, Steven Hayes sat through all of it. His co-defendant, Joshua Komisarjevsky, will go to trial after Hayes' is complete.
Also played in court Wednesday were the 911 calls from a bank teller who saw Hawke-Petit plead for help as she took $15,000 out of her account at the request of her alleged killers.
Ghoshray, who lives in nearby Hamden, told WTNH that her decision to take the young children wasn't done on a whim and that her eldest, daughter Shreyoshi, wants to be a lawyer and work on the U.S. Supreme Court.
"It wasn't just yesterday I woke up and said 'let's go.' It's been six or seven months talking about this case," she said. "What Dr. Petit might be going through? How he's feeling? And then what about the other side? Laying out everything to my children."
But Dr. Alan Kazin, professor of psychology and child psychiatry, said the mother was making a dangerous gamble bringing her children to the trial. Studies have shown, he said, that children have often suffered secondary trauma just from being exposed, even indirectly, to images or stories of graphic violence.
"There's a huge risk that it will have some effect on the children," said Kazdin, who is familiar with the details of the Petit murders. "It's not a question of can children handle it -- these are things that not all people can handle."
Something more appropriate, Kazin said, would have been a visit to a courthouse to speak with officers, judges and baliffs and maybe a brief snippet of a trial that's more inocuous.
"Field trips and hands on learning is a wonderful thing to do," he said. "A little exposure goes a long way."
He also criticized Ghoshray for letting her children set the standard of what it too much for them to handle.
"Research supports that we're not in a position to tell what bothers us all the time," he said, noting that people often say "I'm fine" after witnessing something that they fear. "That doesn't mean they're fine at all."
Even a member of the New Haven homeschooling community questioned the mother's judgment, though she applauded the intent.
"My feeling is it's not particularly appropriate," Gwen Petti said, but quickly added that "parents across the board make imperfect decisions."
Petti said her own children, 13 and 10, would not be allowed to attend such a trial, though she has brought them to the statehouse for a congressional session.
"I thought another kind of trial would be more appropriate," she said. "However, I kind of think she has the right to do it as a homeschooler. She has the right to expose her kids to whatever she wants to expose them to."
Testimony is continuing in the Hayes' trial. Ghoshray was said not to be in the audience today.