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Connecticut Jury Considers Death Penalty For Hayes

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A jury in New Haven, Conn., begins hearing arguments Monday on whether to sentence Steven Hayes to death. He was convicted earlier this month of murdering three people during a home invasion. A co-defendant goes on trial next year. Connecticut is one of two New England states that have capital punishment.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL: In the summer of 2007, Stephen Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky broke into a suburban home in Cheshire, Connecticut, tied up and beat the father, Dr. William Petit, and restrained the two daughters. One of the men then drove the mother, Jennifer Hawke Petit, to a bank to withdraw $15,000. But the ordeal didn't stop there.

Komisarjevsky allegedly sexually assaulted the youngest daughter and Hayes raped Mrs. Petit and strangled her to death. Then the men lit the house on fire, killing the daughters. The two men were apprehended while trying to escape. Dr. Petit was the lone survivor.

Two weeks ago when Hayes was convicted, Petit and family members spoke outside the courthouse.

WILLIAM PETIT: We really thank the jury for their due diligence and careful consideration of the charges and we hope they will continue to use the same diligence and clarity of thought as they consider arguments in the penalty phase of the trial.

NALPATHANCHIL: All the attorneys in the case are under a gag order. Hayes' public defenders had planned to bring an unusual defense to keep him off death row - an argument that this would be more costly to taxpayers than putting him in prison for life without parole. Last week, the judge rejected that argument, saying a jury in the penalty phase is charged with the task of reasoned moral judgment, not counting dollars and cents.

Connecticut defense attorney, John Walkley, who's worked on more than a dozen capital cases, says the judge's objection is not unusual. Walkley says state law is specific on what can be discussed about the defendant

JOHN WALKLEY: If they have a very low IQ, they may be addicted to drugs - those things that might explain, in some way, how someone could get involved in this.

NALPATHANCHIL: In turn, the prosecution will argue there are numerous facts that justify death, saying Hayes acted in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner. At this point no one knows how Hayes' attorneys plan to convince a jury to sentence their client to life in prison.

That penalty makes sense to State Representative Michael Lawlor, a former prosecutor who has led efforts to end capital punishment. Just last year, Connecticut's legislature approved a bill to abolish the death penalty. Lawlor says the timing of the bill was notable.

MICHAEL LAWLOR: It was surprising to me that the vast majority of both Democrats and Republicans who were newly elected to the legislature, supported the bill. And that all happened in the, you know, in the middle of the state's angst over the Cheshire murders.

NALPATHANCHIL: The bill was ultimately vetoed by the governor, who said some crimes are so heinous they deserve the death penalty. Not many in the state will argue with that point, even Lawlor, when thinking about the murders Hayes committed.

LAWLOR: And I for one would say, yes, I do. I think he does deserve to be executed. He's clearly guilty. He's actually confessed. This is a death penalty case if there ever was one.

NALPATHANCHIL: But Lawlor contends that the life in prison without parole is a better alternative. He says the death penalty simply doesn't work. As an example, he points to the fact two of Connecticut's death row inmates have sat there for a combined 40 years as one appeal after another is filed.

For NPR News, I'm Lucy Nalpathanchil in Hartford.


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