Connecticut home-invasion murder trial set to resume
After four days of emotional testimony and evidence -- some so troubling that the judge halted the proceedings early one day -- jurors are getting a break before returning to court Monday for the trial of a man charged in a home invasion that left a mother and her two daughters dead and a quiet suburb in shock.
This is the second trial arising from the 2007 slayings in Cheshire, Conn., and it shows no sign of being any less chilling than the first.
The first one ended in a conviction and death sentence for Steven Hayes, one of the two men charged in the case. Now, co-defendant Joshua Komisarjevsky, who like Hayes was on parole for burglary when the crimes occurred, is on trial for the murders of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters: Michaela, who was 11, and Hayley, who was 17.
Hawke-Petit was raped and strangled, and the girls were burned alive after the house was doused with gasoline and set afire in an apparent bid to destroy evidence. Komisarjevsky is also charged with sexually assaulting the younger girl.
Only the father, William Petit, survived, although he was beaten with a baseball bat.
Petit took the stand Wednesday to describe drifting in and out of consciousness after being tied to a pole in the basement, with blood oozing from his head. Petit said he heard his wife moaning upstairs, a loud thumping sound, and a "sinister" voice saying, "Don't worry, everything will be over in a couple of minutes." Jurors also were shown graphic photographs of the crime scene.
But it was Komisarjevsky's taped statement to police, which was played in court Thursday, that seemed to be the most horrifying to everyone in the crowded courtroom.
Seconds after the tape began playing, Petit dropped his head, and his sister, Johanna Petit Chapman, sitting next to him, put her hand over her eyes, the Hartford Courant reported. That account said Komisarjevsky showed no emotion as he followed along with a printed transcript of the statement.
One juror broke down in tears and others were visibly shaken as the defendant, in the statement, suggested that the 11-year-old victim had not resisted his sexual assault. At that point, Judge Jon C. Blue interrupted, according to the account: "I understand one of the jurors is having a tough time," he said. "This would be a good time to stop."
Afterward, relatives of Petit reportedly were in tears as they hugged each other outside the courtroom in New Haven.
Komisarjevsky's defense lawyer has portrayed him as an unwilling partner in a crime that went horribly wrong, saying his client didn't want to hurt anyone and only was after money when he teamed up with Hayes to break into the home.
The case also has focused attention on the response time of police, who were alerted to a crime in progress when Hawke-Petit was forced to go to her local bank with Hayes and withdraw $15,000. She told the bank teller of the hostage situation, and the bank manager called police immediately after Hawke-Petit left with her cash. The breathless 911 call placed by the bank employee was among the first pieces of evidence presented after opening statements began last Monday.
Police set up a roadblock near the house but did not try to go inside until they spied a vehicle -- carrying the defendants -- backing out of the driveway and smoke pouring from the home. By then, the mother and her daughters were dead. William Petit had managed to escape to a neighbor's home.
In testimony this week, Robert Vignola, a Cheshire detective at the time of the home invasion, was asked why police were given an order not to enter the Petit home as soon as they received the 911 call.
Vignola said that the bank manager had told police that Hawke-Petit feared for her daughters' lives if police immediately burst into the home, and that she had seemed confident the men would leave the family alone if she gave them the $15,000.
-- Tina Susman in New York
Photo: The burned-out home in Cheshire, Conn., of the Petit family after a Juy 2007 home invasion. Credit: AP /Connecticut Judicial Branch