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The Cheshire Public Library’s decision to purchase a new book detailing the murders of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Hayley and Michaela, has garnered an angry response from many residents.
“In The Middle Of The Night: The Shocking True Story of a Family Murdered in Cold Blood,” written by Brian McDonald, gives a detailed account of the murders that took place in July of 2007. The book, which was widely released earlier this month, focuses mainly on the version of events according to one of the suspects in the case, Joshua Komisarjevsky, who, along with Steven Hayes, is charged with the killings.
McDonald was able to converse with Komisarjevsky through a number of letters over a period of a few months, and even visited the suspect in prison to obtain his version of the crimes.
The book has generated a backlash among many in town, who have called for a boycott and signed a petition asking that all shun the book.
However, Ramona Harten, director of the Cheshire Public Library, decided to purchase the book and make it available to residents. Harten stated that, despite what she described as a “very emotional” and negative reaction to the idea of the book, she felt it was her professional obligation to offer the book at the library.
“Our job is to let the readers decide,” said Harten. “There are 100,000 books in our collection. Something is always going to offend someone.”
Harten stated that the first she had heard of the book was when a member of the media asked her about it and then showed her a copy. “Before that, I had never even seen the book,” admitted Harten. After a lengthy conversation with library staff, where many people expressed what she described as “very strong opinions” about the book and its subject, the decision was made to purchase.
“We realized that our strong opinions were our own and we had to be professional,” said Harten.
Harten also stated that she had already received requests from residents who were looking to read the book and felt that it would have been worse had the library decided against the purchase.
“There is the danger of a slippery slope,” said Harten. “There actually have been cases like this where government suppression has been claimed.”
However, that decision has angered many in Cheshire and, on Monday night, before a scheduled meeting of the Library Board, dozens of residents turned out to protest.
“It was a very unfortunate and unwarranted decision,” said Marilyn Bartoli, a friend of the Petits, who has been a vocal supporter of revamping the state’s three strikes law. “It showed an unfortunate lack of regard for the people in this town. It is very disturbing to me on so many levels.”
Bartoli stated that she was disheartened that Harten had decided to purchase the book, because “raw emotions” remain in regard to the crimes, and she suggested that, if the book were to have been made available to residents, it should only have been made so after the trial of the two alleged killers had concluded.
“I can’t imagine one of Michaela’s (Petit) friends walking in and seeing that book there,” said Bartoli. “Ramona is a smart woman. She had to know how controversial this book would be and how hurtful it would be as well.”
Dr. William Petit, who survived the attack on his family, has come out and publicly criticized the book, suggesting that, since a gag order had been placed on everyone involved with the case, McDonald’s communication with Komisarjevsky was, in fact, illegal and that, as such, the book was “illegally obtained.”
“This (book) allows this animal to give his side of the story without cross-examination or forensics, and then causes the other side of the defense to whine that they cannot get a fair trial,” stated Petit, in a widely circulated e-mail that asked residents to boycott the book. “The author, Brian McDonald, acts like he did nothing wrong: it was only his job to write a book, no matter who it hurts.”
Bartoli suggested that Harten’s decision to offer the publication paid little respect to Petit himself, whom she described as still being a “big part of the Cheshire community.”
“He is a taxpayer here and he still has very strong ties,” she stated. “Where does his emotions fall into this?”
Despite the vocal opposition to her decision, Harten stated that, on Tuesday, she received numerous messages of support from individuals who offered their view that she had done the right thing. “This morning, I was pleasantly surprised to receive phone calls and messages in support of the decision,” she said. “I have received nothing but positive feedback today.”
Tonight, at Town Hall at 7 p.m., the Library Board will meet once again to discuss this issue and members of the public will be given the opportunity to express their views. Bartoli stated that it was her intention, and the intention of everyone protesting the decision, to try and get Harten to change her mind.
“We want to try and get the book off the shelves,” said Bartoli. “That is our ultimate goal.”
Harten stated that, while those who protested on Monday night were obviously angry, they also remained civil, and she expected a “respectful” debate tonight.
“Everyone will have a chance to let his or her voice be heard,” she said.