Image: Petit family
William Petit via AP
William and Jennifer Petit are seen with daughters Michaela, front, and Hayley in June 2007 on Cape Cod, Mass.
By
updated 10/6/2010 4:25:39 PM ET 2010-10-06T20:25:39

It was a crime tailor-made for arguments in favor of the death penalty: A career criminal participates in a night of unfathomable cruelty and terror that leaves a woman and her two young daughters dead in the smoldering ruins of their suburban home.

But there's a chance Steven Hayes, convicted this week in the shocking 2007 home invasion, could slip past the execution chamber. His attorney, Tom Ullmann, managed to spare another Connecticut man the death penalty in 2004 after he was convicted of fatally stabbing a woman and her two young children in their sleep for drug money.

"He's really great," said Georgianna Mills, whose son Jonathan was convicted of those killings in Guilford. "He did everything he had to do to get Jon off. I think he convinced the jury it was all because of the drugs."

The jury concluded that Mills' difficult childhood and remorse outweighed his horrific acts. They also went light on him because of his history of drug abuse, something that Hayes, 47, reportedly has in common and that is likely to be brought up in sentencing arguments.

Still, Hayes and his attorneys have a hard row to hoe.

"I think that the defense is going to have an uphill fight given what we know about the nature of the crimes," said William Dunlap, a criminal law professor at Quinnipiac University.

The jury may have a tough time weighing the arguments "because they always have in the back of their minds just how terrible this crime was," said John Walkley, a defense attorney who has handled death penalty cases in Connecticut.

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'Heinous murders'
Prosecutors said Hayes and another ex-con, Joshua Komisarjevsky, broke into a family's house in Cheshire in 2007, beat the girls' father with a baseball bat and forced their mother, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, to withdraw money from a bank before Hayes sexually assaulted and strangled her.

Eleven-year-old Michaela and 17-year-old Hayley were tied to their beds with pillowcases over their heads and doused with gasoline before the house was set ablaze, according to testimony. Michaela was sexually assaulted. The girls died of smoke inhalation.

Connecticut has executed only one person since 1960 — serial killer Michael Ross in 2005.

The death penalty statute in Connecticut, one of the more liberal states, faces regular challenges from legislators. The Cheshire attack's sole survivor, Dr. William Petit, testified to the legislature in favor of keeping executions as an option. Lawmakers voted to abolish them anyway.

"These are heinous murderers who have forfeited their rights to continue to live among us," Petit said then. "It always was and always will be a deterrent for one simple reason: the executed person can never kill again."

Trial full of sorrow, shame
Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who in any case favored the death penalty in certain cases, cited the brutality of the home invasion when she vetoed the bill.

Hayes was convicted of 16 counts, including six capital felony charges, three murder counts and two charges of sexually assaulting Hawke-Petit. He was acquitted of arson because testimony indicated he poured gas on the stairs, but it was unclear who ignited it.

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The same jurors will start deciding Oct. 18 whether Hayes should be executed or get life in prison. Ullmann, the defense attorney, and state prosecutor Michael Dearington declined to comment. Both sides are under a court-imposed gag order.

After the conviction, William Petit said he hoped the jurors would use "the same diligence and clarity of thought" as they considered the sentence.

Hayes' trial and his history of drug abuse and attempted suicide before the trial offer clues, though, to what his attorneys may address in an effort to spare their client the death penalty.

Ullmann put Mills on the stand during the penalty phase of that trial. Mills apologized for the killings.

"This trial in many ways was a grieving process," Ullmann said in his final remarks then. "It was a trial full of sorrow and shame. But now it's time to heal. It's not time to kill more additional victims. The killing is going to have to stop."

The defense tried to show that Mills had a difficult childhood plagued by physical and mental abuse from his alcoholic father, who taught his children how to get drunk and steal.

Prosecutor David Strollo argued that the attack merited the death penalty because it was so savage.

"He mercilessly stabbed them to death in the sanctity of their mother's bed," Strollo said.

In Hayes' trial, Ullmann portrayed him as a petty thief and blamed Komisarjevsky for escalating a robbery into a night of violence and rape. His attorneys also noted that Hayes, who has been on anti-psychotic medication, has been on suicide watch.

"It might be evidence of remorse. It could be evidence of mental instability," Dunlap said, listing potential conditions that the defense might cite to keep Hayes off the executioner's gurney.

The defense could call a state psychiatrist who testified before the trial that Hayes was resigned to the death penalty.

"He said that he continued to feel very hopeless and his new strategy for dealing with his sense of hopelessness was to wait for the state to kill him," Dr. Suzanne Ducate testified in March.

Hayes, who has spent most of his adult life in prison, also has a drug-filled past, according to court records. Walkley said that could be cited to make arguments about the effect of the drugs on Hayes' ability to control his behavior.

Prosecutors rejected the defense argument, saying the two men were equally responsible for the crime and that Hayes had plenty of opportunities to walk away. Prosecutors have said the crime was especially cruel and depraved.

Komisarjevsky faces trial next year and also could be sentenced to death.

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Video: Home-invasion killer could  face execution