Death for Petit Family Murderer Steven Hayes? Penalty Phase Looms

Steven Hayes was found guilty of killing Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two girls.

October 4, 2010, 11:16 AM

NEW HAVEN, Conn., Oct. 6, 2010 — -- The ex-con found guilty in the deaths of a Connecticut mother and her two daughters is now looking toward the penalty phase, which prosecutors hope will end in a death sentence.

Steven Hayes was found guilty Tuesday on 16 of the 17 counts he faced for his role in the brutal 2007 home invasion that left Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, dead. He was convicted of six capital crimes, including murder and kidnapping, which make him eligible for the death penalty.

Hayes' conviction even took center stage Tuesday early on during a gubernatorial debate with the two candidates at odds over whether the death penalty should be abolished.

"If there was ever an instance where capital punishment ... should apply, it's this case,'' said Republican Tom Foley, the Hartford Courant reported. "I support the death penalty ... I will not change the law.''

Democrat Dan Malloy shot back that he wouldn't seek to overturn existing convictions and referenced Hayes and his co-defendant Joshus Komisarjevsky.

"If these two gentlemen are sentenced to death, that sentence will be carried out," Malloy said. " Period.''

A jury will begin hearing arguments in the penalty phase Oct. 18. Connecticut has only executed one person -- serial killer Michael Ross in 2005 -- in the last 40 years.

If sentenced to die, Hayes will join 10 others on Connecticut's death row.

As the verdict was read Tuesday, Dr. William Petit, the only survivor of the slaughter, clutched his sister but remained stoic. Relatives of his slain wife wept while Hayes hung his head.

Hayes, 47, was quickly handcuffed and led out of the courtroom by officers.

As he left the courthouse, Petit thanked the jury for their "appropriate verdict" and said he and his family had kept their "faith in God that justice would be served."

"There is some relief, but my family is still gone. [The verdict] doesn't bring them back, it doesn't bring back the home that we had, but certainly a guilty verdict is a much better sense of relief than a verdict of not guilty," said Petit.

Petit made clear he would also attend the trial for Hayes' accomplice, although he said he gets a "little nausea" each time he heads to court to hear the grisly details of his family's murders.

"If your family was destroyed by evil, you would be there for your family. It's the only thing you can do for your family," said Petit.

"Do I look forward to this every day? No," said Petit. "But I do it for my family, and I think all of you would do the same thing for your families."

The Rev. Richard Hawke, the father of Petit-Hawke, told reporters gathered by the Connecticut courtroom, ""We are pleased with the verdict. … We feel justice is being served."

Hayes was not convicted of first degree arson, a charge that the jury had questioned the judge about during deliberations. Asked by the jury whether Hayes' pouring gasoline in the Petit's home was the same thing as lighting a match, the judge had answered "no."

Petit said he couldn't comment on the not guilty charge and whether he was disappointed by it because he wasn't sure "he understood it."

Three-Week Trial Chronicles Torture, Murder in Cheshire Home Invasion

Asked whether it matters to him what happens to Hayes now that he's been branded a convicted killer, Petit responded, "What matters to me most is my family and my memories of my family."

Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell released a statement on the verdict writing, "The murders of the Petit family horrified and disgusted us all, almost beyond the ability of words to convey. Today's verdicts are a measure of justice – but they can never begin to restore the promise lost on that terrible day in July. That grief may ebb over time but it can never be fully expunged."

Hayes is one of two men accused of killing the three Petit women in July 2007. Joshua Komisarjevsky, Hayes' alleged accomplice, will stand trial next year.

The emotional and at times gruesome three-week trial culminated in emotional closing arguments last week, with Hayes' lawyer trying to pin the majority of the blame on Komisarjevsky.

"He's guilty of sexual assault of Mrs. Petit. There isn't any question about that," defense attorney Thomas Ullman said of Hayes, but quickly added, "He kills Jennifer Petit at the request of Joshua Komisarjevsky."

"Steven Hayes is no angel," Ullman said. "But he's not the one who controlled the escalation of violence. That's Joshua Komisarjevsky."

The trial was alternately grisly and heartbreaking as the prosecution described, often in detail, how Hayes and Komisarjevsky broke into the Petit's upscale Cheshire home in July 2007 and held them captive for hours, eventually raping Hawke-Petit and Michaela, pouring gasoline in the bedrooms, and setting the house on fire with the daughters tied to their beds.

Only the father, Dr. William Petit, survived. Brutally beaten and left bound in the basement, he managed to make his way out to a neighbor's home.

Petit has sat in the courtroom through almost all of the trial, openly crying when jurors were shown pictures of his slain wife and children, and walking out as the medical examiner testified how Petit's 11-year-old daughter was brutalized.

State's Attorney Michael Dearington told jurors that Hayes was equally guilty for the carnage, saying they could "count the opportunities that [Hayes] had to walk away from this."

"He said, 'Things got out of control," Dearington said. "It wasn't things. It was them. They were out of control."

"What was a vibrant house of people at 9 o'clock became a house of terror and horror," Dearington said.

Dearington blasted the defense for trying to convince the jury that Hayes simply got caught up in the moment.

"There's no way to recreate the fear, the terror, the horror that those girls experienced in their last few minutes," Dearington said.

"Did Mr. Hayes have a motive to have those two girls killed? Yes he did," he added. "These two defendants acted together to commit these crimes."

Steven Hayes Tried to Blame Accomplice for Violence

The details exposed during Hayes' trial were gruesome and disturbing, from the text messages allegedly sent between Hayes and Komisarjevsky to the fire that ravaged the building and its occupants that July day.

Testimony revealed that Hawke-Petit had been strangled to death after she'd been raped, while Hayley and Michaela died of smoke inhalation.

Computer and technology expert John Farnham was shown eight pictures off Komisarjevsky's cell phone, taken while he and defendant Hayes allegedly assaulted their victims.

The jury was spared the shocking images, but Farnham was asked to describe each one. In two of the photos, he said, Komisarjevsky -- who will face trial after Hayes -- was photographed nude and posing suggestively. Five showed a young female with her arms tied above her head, with a cloth over her face and a close up of her underwear.

The eighth photo was of an older female, her legs spread.

Corrections Officer Jeremiah Krob, who has been responsible for the continuous observation of Hayes while he sits in prison, testified that he overheard conversations Hayes has had with another inmate, Vernon Cowan, in which he admitted killing Hawke-Petit.

Hayes allegedly told Cowan that he didn't know if he could "go through" with killing Petit-Hawke, according to Krob, but when he spotted police cruisers outside the family's home that July day, he did it.

"He never mentioned how he killed Mrs. Petit. He just stated that he did kill Mrs. Petit," Krob testified.

Some of what Krob heard was in conversations between Hayes and other inmates using an inmate communication system.

Krob said Hayes talked with his cell neighbor by placing "empty toilet paper rolls and placing it over the sink drain and talking to each other through that system."

The officer told the court that Hayes had told the other inmate that investigators would find physical evidence of sodomy when they examined his alleged accomplice, Joshua Komisarjevsky. Komisarjevsky, will face a trial of his own at a later date.

"Hayes did mention that Komisarjevsky had taken cell phone pictures of the youngest Petit girl and was trying to e-mail them to his friends," said Krob.

Medical Examiner Wayne Carver has testified that the older of the two Petit girls, Hayley, was found laying face down in the hallway, but that the front of her clothing was more severely burned than the back, indicating she'd been directly exposed to fire.

He speculated that she had managed to free herself after being tied to her bed and made her way down the hallway and that Michaela had likely died a painful death.

Fire at Petit Home Was So Fierce No Rescues Were Possible

The fire allegedly set by the two ex-cons was so ferocious that there was no chance of rescuing the three victims from the flames, according Paul Makuc of the state fire marshal's office.

The courtroom also heard testimony regarding a series of text messages that Hayes and Komisarjevsky sent back and forth before allegedly heading out around 3 a.m. to the Petit home, where Komisarjevsky had followed Hawke-Petit from a grocery store.

"I'm chomping at the bit to get started," Hayes wrote to Komisarjevsky at 7:45 p.m. the previous night. "Need a margarita soon."

And then, between 8:45 p.m. and 9:20 p.m., the following exchange:

"We still on?" Hayes sent to Komisarjevsky.

"Yes," Komisarjevsky replied.

"Soon?" Hayes wrote back.

"I'm putting kid to bed," Komisarjevsky then wrote to Hayes. "Hold your horses."

"Dude the horses want to get loose," Hayes replied. "Lol." ABC News' Sarah Netter and Lee Ferran contributed to this report.

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