Conn. Home Invasion: Petit Murders Spark Debate on Cost of Death Penalty Versus Justice

Attorneys for Steven Hayes argue against death penalty based on cost.

Oct. 13, 2010— -- The gruesome details in the home invasion murders of a Connecticut mother and her two daughters have led armchair jurors to call for the execution of convicted killer Steven Hayes.

That kind of emotional reaction is exactly what Hayes' defense attorneys are hoping to avoid as they try to convince the court ahead of next week's penalty trial that it would be cheaper for the state to let their client languish in prison for life than it would be to put him to death.

"The cost of imposing and carrying out a death sentence far exceeds the cost of a sentence of life without the possibility of release," the defense's court filing states, adding that the defense intended to call an expert witness to back up their claims.

Hayes, 47, was convicted last week on 16 felony counts for his role in the grisly July 2007 home invasion that ended with the murders of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11. Themother and one of the daughters were also raped.

The state argued in a separate motion that the cost of execution was "irrelevant."

His attorneys are arguing their case today in a pre-trial hearing. According to the Hartford Courant, Hayes attorney's cited polls showing that support for the death penalty decreases when people learn of the cost disparity between the two sentences.

But 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 today.

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' trial riveted the nation and provided justice for the sole Petit survivor, Dr. William Petit.

The husband, who was savagely beaten and tied to a pole in the basement before he managed to escape to a neighbor's house shortly before his home was burned down with his family inside, spoke passionately on behalf of his family both inside and outside of the courtroom.

But he has announced he will not give a victim impact statement during the penalty phase, which begins Monday.

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.

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.

Petit went on to call on the Connecticut General Assembly to amend its law to "guarantee in unambiguous terms" the right victims to give an impact statement before sentencing.

Cost of Execution a Common Argument by Death Penalty Opponents

The defense's argument about cost is a common one, said Austin Sarat, professor of jurisprudence and political science at Massachusetts' Amherst College. And studies have shown that the cost of a death sentence typically is higher, on average, because of the state-absorbed funding of years of appeals, legal representation for the inmate, appeal to the governor and the need for the state to continuously rebut the defense appeals.

"It's not just about the food and medical care and the costs of the guards around him," Sarat said.

The Washington D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes the death penalty, has long held cost up as a reason to abolish such sentencing. Though much of the research is done on a state-by-state basis, the center argues that it not only costs millions more to sentence a convict to death rather than life in prison, but that the death penalty does not seem to be deterrent for murder, based on murder rates in death-penalty states.

In California, the center noted, the state estimated it's annual cost for the death penalty system to be $137 million in 2008. The same year, Maryland estimate the average cost to execute an inmate was about $37 million.

The jury will have to balance that argument with the general loathing for the man who destroyed what many considered to be the quintessential all-American family.

"How do we respond to such unspeakable horrors?" Sarat questioned.

Connecticut has only executed one prisoner in the last 40 years. Serial killer Michael Ross was executed in 2005.

Connecticut did not put together a cost analysis for the Ross death sentence and execution, state Department of Correction spokesman Brian Garnett said today.

Garnett was prevented by court order from discussing specifics of the Hayes case, but said that the average daily cost for an inmate at McDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield where Hayes is being held is $96 per day. The cost to house an inmate at the maximum security Northern Correctional Institution in Somers, where the death row is located is an average of $192 per day.

Hayes Trial Often Graphic, Heartbreaking

Hayes' co-defendant, Joshua 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.