Nov 5, 2010

Steven Hayes Jury Ends Day 1 Of Deliberations

It has been decades since a Superior Court jury deliberated on a weekend, but with just one alternate left and the high-stakes nature of the widely publicized Cheshire home-invasion trial, jurors deciding triple murderer Steven Hayes' fate will be back at work early today.

The five men and seven women ended their first day of deliberations Friday without reaching a verdict.

Two notes they sent with hypothetical vote counts on charges suggest they are divided on mitigating factors in the case, which could result in Hayes' being spared the death penalty for the killings of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Hayley and Michaela.

Hayes was convicted Oct. 5 of breaking into the Petits' home in the middle of the night on July 23, 2007, beating Dr. William Petit Jr. and tying up the family while he and an accomplice robbed the family's Cheshire home. At one point, Hayes forced Hawke-Petit to drive to a bank to withdraw money.

When they returned to the home, Hayes raped and strangled Hawke-Petit. The house was doused with gasoline and set on fire. Hayley, 17, died of smoke inhalation. Michaela, 11, suffered the same cause of death and was also sexually assaulted by Hayes' accomplice, Joshua Komisarjevsky, according to trial testimony.

Petit was the only family member to survive the attack and arson.

Komisarjevsky, 30, of Cheshire, will go to trial next year. He also faces execution if convicted.

Six of the 16 counts Hayes was found guilty of are capital felonies, making Hayes, 47, of Winsted, eligible for death by lethal injection.

Judge Jon C. Blue began Friday's juror discussions at 10:19 a.m., telling the panel, "With much thanks and appreciation, we will let you go to work." The jury then went to the deliberation room while members of the victims' family and news reporters waited in the courtroom. The mood in the gallery was mostly light, and the talkative crowd was quieted often by judicial marshals and the judge, who stepped out from his chambers from time to time.

But that lightness wore thin as the day progressed and two notes, the first coming at 2:40 p.m., hinted that jurors could be struggling with their deliberations. Some jurors appeared a little worn and some sighed and took deep breaths as they stepped into the courtroom to get instructions from the judge on how to proceed.

The first note, which Blue described as "complicated," asked the judge and lawyers: "What does it mean to unanimously find the existence of a statutory mitigating factor?"

By law, if jurors are unanimous that statutory mitigating factors exist on one of the capital felony charges, then a sentence of life without the possibility of release is imposed on that particular charge.

The three statutory mitigating factors applicable to this case are: impaired mental capacity, impaired ability to conform one's conduct to law, and the inability to have reasonably foreseen that one's conduct would pose grave risk of causing death. The third factor applies for only some of the counts against Hayes.

The judge said the note asked what if, hypothetically, some jurors find at least one mitigating factor and others find none.

"In our example, two jurors have no for all three statutory mitigating factors, and they refuse to sign yes. What is the next step?" the note asked. Blue told them they are not unanimous and sent them back to deliberate.

A second note came out at 4:13 p.m. asking for more clarification on the statutory mitigating factors involving Hayes' mental capacity and Hayes' ability to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law.

They were still divided on the factors, the note said, and the jurors wanted to know how to fill out the verdict form so they could move on to the next phase of their deliberations. Blue told them the verdict form does not get filled out until each person finds that a statutory mitigating factor exists, or all 12 agree that there is none.

To return a finding that a statutory mitigating factor exists, jurors do not have to be unanimous about which one, but they have to be unanimous that a least one factor exists.

Criminal defense attorney Hugh Keefe of New Haven, who is not involved in this case, said that if jurors cannot unanimously agree on statutory mitigating factors, then a hung jury would result.
The case would revert to the beginning of the penalty phase and a new jury would have to be chosen. Keefe said any new penalty phase would be longer than this one because evidence from the guilt phase would have to be re-introduced to the new jury.

If a hung jury occurred, the defense could file a motion asking the judge to accept a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release.

Blue asked the jurors if they wanted to continue deliberating and the foreman said they wanted to return this morning. They will resume their work at 9 a.m.

Hayes' defense attorneys argued that a troubled family history, an addiction to drugs and alcohol, a "significantly impaired" mental state and Hayes' status as "a follower and not the mastermind" contributed to his role in the home-invasion killings.

They say Hayes "was unable to prevent escalating violence due to his damaged weak follower personality and significant character flaws." They claim that Hayes was in a state of intense rage at the time of the crime and is now remorseful and has an "unrelenting burden of guilt." The defense argues that Hayes has responded to the crimes with "shame, humiliation, depression, suicidality and empathy" for the victims.

Prosecutors, however, portrayed Hayes, a longtime criminal who was on parole at the time of the Petit killings, as a conniving, sadistic and violent thief whose failed attempts at living a clean and law-abiding life led to a life in and out of prison.

A prison official testified that Hayes was a self-aware, manipulative inmate shrewd to how his self-professed suicide attempts — and the prison system's reporting of them — could affect whether he received life in prison without the possibility of release or death.

Courant Staff Writer Josh Kovner contributed to this story.

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