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With the evidence the state has in its case against Joshua Komisarjevsky, there are only so many defense strategies that an attorney could utilize for their client.
The most obvious, and what can be expected in less than two weeks at the start of the Joshua Komisarjevsky trial on Sept. 19, is to blame his co-defendant, explained veteran defense attorney Hugh Keefe. Keefe, a New Haven-based attorney who is not involved with the case, expected this trial to be similar to that of Steven Hayes, who was tried last year, found guilty, and ultimately sentenced to death for the killing of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two teenage daughters, Hayley and Michaela, during a July 2007 home invasion in Cheshire.
Hayes, like Komisarjevsky, was arrested after fleeing from the Petit family home in Cheshire as it burst into flames. Both men were allegedly caught after the Petit family SUV they were driving crashed into two police cruisers stationed at the roadblock at the end of Sorghum Mill Road. Komisarjevsky is facing similar charges as Hayes, including murder, arson, and kidnapping. He faces the death penalty, if found guilty.
Keefe explained that there is certainly a limited defense plan in a case like this. Both men had offered to plead guilty to the charges and accept life in prison without parole, but those offers have repeatedly been rejected. With the limited defense plan, the Hayes team tried to pin Komisarjevsky as the mastermind and, likewise, Keefe expects the Komisarjevsky public defense team to blame Hayes.
"The number of plausible defenses is limited. Pointing the finger at the other guy is one of them however," Keefe said. "How far that gets is another question. They confessed to these heinous crimes so, number one, how do you make someone else do something like that and, number two, so what? Is that a defense. No, it's not."
According to testimony in the Hayes trial, the men broke into the Petit family home on Sorghum Mill Drive in the middle of the night with the intent to steal money. Komisarjevsky allegedly beat Dr. William Petit in the head with a baseball bat before tying him up in the basement. The three Petit women were initially bound to their beds. Hawke-Petit was driven to the Bank of America in Maplecroft Plaza and withdrew $15,000, where she also alerted the teller that her family was being held hostage.
During the Hayes trial, lawyers stated that Komisarjevsky had sexually assaulted Michaela while Hayes was at the bank with Hawke-Petit, so he had to "even the score." It was then Hayes raped and strangled Hawke-Petit.
Gasoline was also spread around the house, including the upstairs where Hayley and Michaela remained tied to their beds, and a fire was started. It is unclear who actually lit the match that started the fire. Komisarjevsky allegedly told police that he closed the bedroom doors before the fire was started. Both men fled the house as it erupted in flames and were apprehended nearby. Hayes allegedly stated to police that "things got out of hand" when asked if there were people in the house.
Komisarjevsky apparently told police that there were three people inside, and that the mother was dead, "strangled," and nodded towards Hayes.
Petit managed to escape from the basement and was found by a neighbor who called for help.
While the Hayes trial and Komisarjevsky trial will be more similar than different, Keefe believes this trial will be "a little more interesting" because of the defense lawyers involved. He felt the team consisting of public defenders Jeremiah Donovan, Walter C. Bansley III and Todd A. Bussert, would be "more aggressive" than the lawyers who represented Hayes. According to Keefe, Hayes' attorneys, Thomas Ullmann, New Haven's chief public defender, and Patrick Culligan, took a reserved approach during the trial.
"They were very cautious about upsetting the family of the victims. There was a lot of hands-off conduct," Keefe stated. "They made a lot of decisions in that theme. It's not that they wanted to be very nice guys, but they thought it would offend the jury, if nothing else."
Having seen that tactic fail, Keefe theorized that Komisarjevsky's lawyers would be more aggressive in their conduct and approach.
"Having seen that theory not work, I think this defense team has dismissed that as a tactical defense," Keefe stated. "I think the defense will take a more aggressive tact."
Message boards and posts to stories published online are filled with comments from the public questioning why the lawyers continue to file motions and objections every step of the way. Most recently, Komisarjevsky's lawyers requested that his statements made to police soon after his arrest - statements that allegedly contain a confession - be removed as evidence. The court had a special hearing on the motion that included testimony from Cheshire Police Detective Joseph Vitello, and Judge Jon C. Blue eventually ruled to allow the comments into evidence during the trial.
Keefe said he was "not surprised" with Blue's ruling, explaining that the defense will continue to file motions and objections as basis for future appeal.
"I don't think the defense expected to prevail at the trial level. There is nothing to indicate that they would win that motion," Keefe explained. "The defense is creating as many legal issues as possible for the record."
A regular jury consisting of 12 men and women has been selected and will be sworn in next Monday. There are also six back-ups and three alternates. During the Hayes trial, a handful of jurors were excused from duty after evidence had already been presented. If it fell below 12 jurors, there would have been a mistrial. An additional back-up was selected for the Komisarjevsky trial.
The trial begins on Sept. 19 in New Haven Superior Court.