- FUN FEATURES
More than a dozen prospective jurors were dismissed Tuesday afternoon as the jury selection process began for one of the men charged with the July 2007 Petit family murders.
More than two and a half years after being arrested, the jury selection for Steven Hayes started on Jan. 19 in New Haven Superior Court. Courtroom 6A was filled with reporters and friends and family of Dr. William Petit, Jr., who was beaten but survived the attack. Petit, wearing a white and black patterned sports coat with a dark blue turtle neck sat quietly on an aisle seat in the small courtroom, while one of the men being charged with killing his family sat 15 feet away. Hayes, unshackled, sat in silence and faced forward during the proceedings. He wore a purple and black striped shirt and dark slacks, with no belt. He was noticeably thinner than at the time of his arrest some two plus years ago, and was flanked on both sides by his public defense team consisting of Thomas Ullman and Patrick Culligan. Across the aisle were New Haven State’s Attorney Michael Dearington and Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Gary Nicholson, who are serving as the prosecution on the case. During the initial proceedings, Petit was seen holding his head, and sometimes grimacing, as members of the defense and prosecution told prospective jurors that images, including crime scene photos, seen during the trial would be graphic and appalling.
On July 23, 2007, Hayes, 46, of Winsted, and Joshua Komisarjevsky, 29, of Cheshire, were arrested after allegedly fleeing the Petit’s Sorghum Mill Drive home. Petit’s wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and two daughters, Hayley and Michaela, were killed, while Petit was severely beaten, during the home invasion. Hayes and Komisarjevsky face 18 counts that include capital felony, arson, rape, and kidnapping. If found guilty on the capital felony charges, the only punishment options would be the death penalty or life imprisonment without the possibility of release. Dearington has stated from the beginning that his office would be seeking the death penalty for both men.
Walking into New Haven Superior Court, visitors needed to pass through a metal detector before proceeding. Outside of courtroom 6A, a second metal detector was set up for added security measures. A judicial marshal outside of the courtroom explained that water bottles were permitted inside the court, but all contents would need to be finished before moving forward.
“I need you to take a good swig out of the bottle to make sure that it’s actually water,” the marshal said. “We are living in different times now.”
Security inside the courtroom consisted of a handful of judicial marshals. In previous court appearances, a heavily armed special unit wearing camouflage gear assisted in security measures, but they were not seen in the courtroom Tuesday morning.
Shortly after 10 a.m., Superior Court Judge Jon C. Blue entered the courtroom and went over the expected timetable for the trial, State vs. Hayes. Jury selection will take months, while the trial and presentation of evidence would not start until Sept. 13, at the earliest. The trial could take anywhere from three weeks to three months, Blue said, and he let the potential jurors know that, if they are selected, it would be a large commitment of time. For the trial, 12 jurors, six alternates, and two backups will be selected. The prosecution and defense are allowed 38 preemptory challenges each to remove a perspective juror without explanation.
As 24 potential jurors were seated, 18 in the jurors box and six in the front row of the courtroom, a list of potential witnesses and those working on the case were distributed. After looking over the lists, six possible jurors raised their hands for potential conflicts. Of the six, two were dismissed for conflicts. One gentleman was excused for his work with the Regional Water Authority, where Cheshire police officers often provide traffic assistance, while the other juror knew a witness that would be called from the police department and was also immediately excused from questioning.
Since a trial could take months to complete, Blue said there could be personal hardships that could be damaging to a prospective juror. A total of 11 people were dismissed after explaining personal hardships, such as self-employed loss of income, childcare worries, and personal health reasons, which could prove damaging if selected to the jury. After two hours, what was left were 11 potential jurors and the individual voir dire, was set to begin. The defense and prosecution can ask as many questions as they’d like of a potential juror during voir dire to determine if they could be swayed or influenced, in an effort to protect the defendant’s right to a fair trial.
“You need a willingness to listen to the evidence and the facts in a fair and impartial way,” Blue explained. “Obviously, if you cannot be fair, you cannot be on the jury.”
A 21-year-old male, wearing a blue t-shirt, was the first to be questioned during voir dire, which took nearly an hour to complete. He was asked about his previous knowledge of the case, his views on the death penalty, family connections, employment history, and views on police officers.
“We call this murder, but it goes beyond murder in certain aspects. There will be graphic evidence, disturbing and upsetting photographs,” Dearington said. “It’s not something you will see every day. It goes beyond that. How do you feel about that?”
“I don’t look forward to it, but I could accept that if I had to,” the potential juror said.
Dearington then asked him if he was a leader or a follower, to which the man responded that he believed himself to be a leader. After a few more questions, Ullman stepped in with his own round of questioning that repeated some of Dearington’s points.
“These are very serious charges; about as serious as they get,” Ullman said. “Is there anything you feel that might make you lean one way or the other, for whatever reason?”
“No, sir,” the potential juror responded. The line of questioning continued, and Ullman focused on news sources that the prospective juror reads or follows, and if he knew of the books published about the case, which he did not. Ullman asked if he would be receptive to hearing psychiatric reports and child history stories for Hayes during the trial.
When the questioning finished, he was excused by the state. This process continued until 5 p.m., with no one officially being selected, and will continue forward until 20 jurors are eventually chosen.
Petit spoke briefly outside of the courthouse and said he was happy to see progress being made on the case. While acknowledging that it would be a lengthy jury selection process, Petit said the ultimate goal is a conviction, and he hoped justice would be served for his wife and two daughters.
Jury selection will continue up until the actual trial begins with the presentation of evidence, which will not occur until Sept. 13, at the earliest. Komisarjevsky is expected to go to trial sometime next year.