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Efforts by the defense team for Steven Hayes to take the death penalty off the table, if their client is found guilty of capital felony murder, were denied last week by Superior Court Judge Jon C. Blue.
Defense lawyers Patrick Culligan and Thomas Ullmann argued on behalf of their client that the death penalty should not be applicable in this case because last year the state legislature voted to repeal capital punishment in Connecticut. That measure was ultimately vetoed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell, but the defense felt their client's right to a fair trial was put in jeopardy because of language the Governor used in her veto message.
In her letter, Rell referenced Dr. William Petit, the lone survivor of the July 2007 home invasion for which Hayes is being charged, and reaffirmed her belief that the death penalty should be an option for "those who have murdered in the most vile, dehumanizing fashion."
"These statements of the Governor have irreparably damaged the defendant’s right to a fair trial in a trial that provides for the death penalty as punishment," the defense argued. "Her statements are so prejudicial that the irreparable harm must be presumed."
Blue, however, was unconvinced, stating that, of the approximately 1,300 potential jurors that appeared before the court during jury selection, only "one or two" were aware of the veto. Many of these potential jurors were also subject to individual voir dire, where the defense and prosecution ask questions that can range from background information to beliefs on the death penalty.
"No person with this knowledge was placed on the jury," Blue wrote in his ruling. "A fair and impartial jury has been selected. Under these circumstances, any presumption of prejudice is rebutted."
In January, the defense submitted a motion to preclude Hayes from receiving the death penalty if found guilty of the charges. In July, the defense amended the motion claiming that capital penalties are "cruel and unusual" punishment. The defense believed the legislature's actions showed that the death penalty is now longer considered humane. Blue denied all of the defense's motions, saying that the action of the legislature and Rell's veto "is insufficient to justify a judicial finding that societal endorsement of the death penalty no longer exists in Connecticut."
"Whether a hypothetical series of future legislative actions to the same effect would result in a different judicial conclusion can be left for another day," Blue wrote in his ruling.
Outside of the courtroom last week, Petit said the defense's efforts were "frivolous" and "a waste of time." He also urged residents to support candidates that are in favor of the death penalty.
"I’m annoyed when the defense gets up and talks about decency when they’re defending two people who strangled a woman with MS and tied a 17-year-old and an 11-year-old to their beds and set the house on fire."
Hayes, along with Joshua Komisarjevsky, has been charged with the murders of Jennifer Hawke-Petit, who had Multiple Sclerosis, and her two daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11. Both men were arrested after allegedly fleeing the Petit home on Sorghum Mill Drive as it erupted in flames. Evidence is expected to be presented beginning on Sept. 13 and could last as long as three months. Jury selection for Komisarjevsky is expected to start in January.