Petit Murders: Steven Hayes' Lawyer Tries to Spare His Life

Character witness for Hayes describes him as a "follower."

NEW HAVEN, Conn. Oct. 18, 2010— -- Defense attorneys trying to spare convicted murderer Steven Hayes the death penalty for his role in the murders of a Connecticut mother and her two daughters plan to employ character witnesses and his history of drug abuse as part of their strategy.

"At this point, you must have an open mind as a question of punishment," public defender Patrick Culligan told the jury today, the first day of the sentencing trial, which is expected to last about two weeks.

"You will learn that he has a long criminal history of being a burglar and a thief and a person who has for a long period of time in his life [had] a serious drug abuse addiction," he continued. "You will also learn he could be a good worker ... he could be a likable person."

But whether or not being a sometimes "likable person" is enough to spare Hayes life is debatable for the jury who sat through weeks of gruesome evidence before finding Hayes, 47, guilty on 16 of 17 felony counts for the murders of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11.

Hawke-Petit and Michaela were also raped before being killed.

The defense's first witness, former investigator D'Arcy Lovetere, said she got to know Hayes during her time with the public defender's office in his hometown and described him as a "gentleman" and "motivated to work," who was always remorseful for his crimes.

"He wasn't the best criminal in the world for sure," Lovetere testified. "His addiction overtook him , but he just wasn't all that good as a criminal, I guess. He was a klutz."

"He was definitely a follower," she said.

And when she found out that Hayes, who once had a crush on her then-teenage daughter, Lovetere testified, "It knocked the wind out of me."

"I couldn't believe it," she said. "I just was shocked."

The defense also called witness Christiane Gehami , who owns the West Hartford restaurant Arugula where Hayes worked as a pantry chef in 2006, while he was living in a halfway house.

Hayes would often get rides homes from Gehami who said she found Hayes to be "funny" and added that he "got along" with the other employees.

"Nobody lasts in there if you don't get along," added Gehami.

Gehami told the court about a time when Hayes broke up an argument between her co-chef and another man.

"Basically what Steve was doing was protecting me from this guy," she said.

When she first heard about the Petit murders and Hayes' involvement, Gehami said her first reaction was "No way, this is a mistake."

Gehami also provided of preview of the pending trial of Hayes' co-defendant Joshua Komisarjevsky. She said that Komisarjevsky sometimes came to the restaurant to "help with projects" and that she recalls thinking she was "looking at the devil" and denied his offer to work for her.

Komisarjevsky had "dead eyes," added Gehami.

The prosecution rested its case before noon, calling just one witness --- criminal court clerk John Dziekan -- to present Hayes prior convictions.

"Ninety-nine percent of the evidence we rely on has already been put before you," State's Attorney Michael Dearington said today during his opening statement.

Evidence in the sentencing phase, the bulk of it from the defense, is scheduled to be heard early this week and into next week, with closing statements expected by Oct. 29.

Culligan told the jury today that he had as many as eight witnesses who knew Hayes before the 2007 home invasion for "insight as to who Steven Hayes was before he committed the crimes."

Hayes, dressed in a white collared shirt with black stripes, made little movement during the morning's events, much as he did during his trial.

Dr. William Petit, the sole survivor of his family's massacre, was in the audience. Petit announced earlier this month that he will not give a victim impact statement during the penalty phase.

In a statement, Petit cited what he considers to be a lack of clarity in Connecticut law regarding the reading of victim impact statements, saying it is not well-defined whether such a statement should be read by the victim himself or by the prosecutor and whether or not such a statement should be presented prior to or after the sentencing.

Cost of Execution a Common Argument by Death Penalty Opponents

Petit said he feared that "this lack of clarity" could be used by an appellate court to rule that a victim impact statement improperly influenced sentencing.

"I do not presently intend to seek to offer a victim impact statement in this case precisely because of my concerns that it could be used (wrongly) as a basis for appeal and possibly even a new sentencing trial," Petit said.

Hayes' attorneys tried unsuccessfully to argue the financial costs of a death sentence as a possible deterrant. Last week, the judge ruled that cost could not be a factor for the jury, that the sentence should be based on evidence and the law, not economics.

An overwhelming majority of Connecticut residents favor the death penalty for the man convicted in the Petit murders, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released last week.

The university reported that 76 percent of respondents were in favor of a death penalty for this specific crime and 18 were against, compared to a 65 to 23 percent split in favor of the death penalty in general.

Hayes' co-defendant, Komisarjevsky, 30, is scheduled to go to trial next year.

Together, prosecutors say, they ambushed the Petit family on a summer night after Komisarjevsky followed Hawke-Petit and Michaela home from a grocery store and targeted the family as wealthy.

The two intended to rob the family, but after finding little cash in the house they held the family captive for hours before driving Hawke-Petit to the bank to withdraw $15,000. Hawke-Petit was seen on the bank's surveillance system pleading with the teller to help her family.

Prosecutors alleged that Komisarjevsky raped Michaela, later forcing her to take a shower before tying her to her bed. During Hayes' trial, prosecutors argued that he raped Hawke-Petit before strangling her. As the two girls lay tied to their beds with Hawke-Petit dead on the lower floor of the house, Hayes and Komisarjevsky set fire to the house, prosecutors said, pouring gasoline on and around the girls' bed before fleeing.

The medical examiner ruled that the two girls died of smoke inhalation.

The trial included graphic testimony related to the sexual assaults and the deaths of all three women. Jurors were shown crime scene photos of their bodies and testimony was given as to graphic photos Komisarjevsky allegedly took of Michaela.

The response of the Cheshire Police Department has been questioned in the years since the home invasion. Though critics have charged that they did not react swiftly enough even after Hawke-Petit's appearance at the bank, the police department has stood by its officers, saying they reacted appropriately to what was then an unknown situation.