Thursday, July 29, 2010

Any sense of closure

MVFHR board member Walt Everett is quoted at the end of Tuesday's article in the Hartford Courant:

NEW HAVEN — When Gov. M. Jodi Rell vetoed the legislature's repeal of the dealth penalty last year, she referred to the only surviving victim in the Cheshire triple homicide case — and that violated the due-process rights of co-defendant Stephen Hayes, the defense argued Tuesday.

As a result, the lawyers said, the judge should bar the prosecution from pursuing the death penalty during Hayes' trial, which starts Sept. 13.

But Superior Court Judge Jon C. Blue did not appear sympathetic to that argument. He said a governor's veto is part of the legislative process, and the death penalty remains law in Connecticut. He said Rell's reference to the Cheshire case could be remedied by a fair and impartial jury following its oath to reach a verdict based on what it hears in the courtroom, and to abide by the instructions of the judge during any penalty phase of the capital case. Blue did not issue a ruling on the defense motion Tuesday.

Defense lawyers Patrick Culligan and Thomas Ullmann argued that because a majority of the state House and Senate in June 2009 voted to repeal the death penalty, the action represents the will of the people and should trump Rell's veto. The legislature lacked the votes to override the veto.

The lawyers focused on a paragraph in Rell's veto message that said, "The death penalty sends a clear message to those who may contemplate such cold, calculated crimes. We will not tolerate those who have murdered in the most vile, dehumanizing fashion. We should not, will not, abide by those who have killed for the sake of killing; to those who have taken a precious life and shattered the lives of many more. Dr. William Petit recently quoted Lord Justice Denning, Master of the Rolls of the Court of Appeals in the United Kingdom, who said …"

Rell than quoted a statement that Denning made in 1949 that said, in part, "It is essential that the punishment inflicted for grave crimes should adequately reflect the revulsion felt by the great majority of citizens …"

Petit's wife and and two daughters were killed in a home invasion and robbery on July 23, 2007. Petit was badly beaten but escaped.

Hayes and co-defendant Joshua Komisarjevsky, who will be tried separately at a later date, are charged in the in the killings of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11. Hawke-Petit was raped and strangled. Her daughters were left bound to their beds, and the house was doused with gasoline and set on fire. Before the killings, Hawke-Petit was forced to go to her bank with one of the assailants and withdraw money.

"A death case is different than any other kind of prosecution,'' Culligan argued, adding that to pursue death in the face of Rell's specific reference to the surviving victim in the Cheshire case would be to deprive Hayes of his right to a fair trial.

"The line is clear and she stepped way over it,'' Culligan said of Rell.

Blue noted that Rell has the power to veto legislative actions and that even imprudent statements by governors or presidents don't necessarily deprive criminal defendants of fair trials.

"The case law seems to say that as long as the atmosphere is not completely poisoned, that the appropriate thing to do is to choose a fair and unbiased jury. If that is done, the trial is deemed fair," Blue said.

Outside the courtroom Tuesday, Petit said that it was painful for him to hear the defense lawyers say that the death penalty violates standards of decency, given that he lost his family in such a brutal crime.

"I have difficulty rationally and emotionally following those arguments," he said, reiterating that he staunchly supports the death penalty.

In May 2009, an anti-death penalty group made up of family members of murder victims asked Petit to reconsider his views. The Rev. Walter Everett, whose son was killed in Bridgeport in 1987, said the pain of the years' long appeals process that follows a death sentence and the burden of carrying the anger obliterate any sense of closure that an execution might bring.

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