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Home invasion survivor faces long court case

Home Invasion
Dr. William Petit, center, runs in the first annual GE 5k Petit Family Foundation Road Race in Plainville, Conn., last July 20, 2008.  Petit faces years — perhaps decades — of emotionally draining court hearings before the two men charged with murdering his family in a 2007 home invasion may be convicted and executed. Jessica Hill / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

At 52, Dr. William Petit faces years — perhaps decades — of emotionally draining court hearings before the two men charged with murdering his family in a 2007 home invasion may be convicted and executed.

He'll have to listen repeatedly to the horrific details of the crimes against his wife, who was strangled, and two daughters, who were tied to their beds. All three died of smoke inhalation from a fire police say the intruders set as they fled Petit's house after holding the family hostage for hours. Petit, a prominent physician who was beaten during the ordeal, will sit feet away from the defendants as they assert their rights and file appeal after appeal.

Attorneys for defendants Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky said this week in court that their offer to plead guilty in exchange for life in prison could have ended it all. But defense attorneys said prosecutors refused because they want to win death sentences.

A trial could begin in January.

Petit countered that an attorney for Hayes was trying to shift blame to him and prosecutors for not accepting a plea bargain, "when it was his client who helped kill three innocent people."

Impact of death penalty cases
As lawmakers weigh the future of the death penalty in some states, officials are giving greater weight to the effect of prolonged death penalty cases on victims' families. Commissions in New Jersey and Maryland in recent years found that death penalty cases are more harmful to the families of victims than cases that end with life sentences.

"The commission finds that regardless of whether or not a survivor supports an execution, years of court dates, reversals, appeals and exposure to the killer is harmful to the family members of murder victims," the Maryland commission wrote in its report last year.

New Jersey repealed its death penalty in 2007, while Maryland has had a moratorium since 2006.

Across the country, relatives of murder victims say the plodding pace of a death penalty case in court is difficult.

Phyllis Bricker of Baltimore has sat through 26 years of court hearings since her parents were murdered in 1983. Their killer, John Booth-El, remains on death row.

"It's hard on the family, very hard," Bricker said. "Your life is on hold because you never know when another trial is coming up, another appeal is coming up."

One time, Bricker said, the defendant turned to her family and said, "See you next year."

Despite the protracted battle, Bricker said she does not favor a sentence of life without parole. She said that option did not exist at the time of the crime and she's skeptical prisoners would be kept behind bars for life.

'I could see us exhaling'
The Rev. Cathy Harrington's daughter, Leslie Ann Mazzara, was killed in 2004 in California. A 2007 plea agreement was reached in which her convicted killer, Eric Copple, got life in prison.

"I could see us exhaling," Harrington said of her family at the sentencing. "I hadn't realized how tense we were. I didn't have any room to really grieve properly. I was so busy trying to get through this, never knowing when the phone rang who it was going to be."

Harrington has written an essay about her daughter for a book and is studying for a doctorate focusing on restorative justice. Her sons are building a cottage for abused children in Leslie's memory.

"I'm so busy. I'm tired, but I feel like I can maybe start to live my life now," Harrington said.

Bill to abolish death penalty vetoed
She said Petit has the right to favor the death penalty in his case.

Hayes and Komisarjevsky, who were on parole after serving prison time for burglary, are accused of breaking into Petit's home, beating him and forcing his wife to withdraw thousands of dollars from a bank before they strangled her. They've pleaded not guilty to capital felony murder, sexual assault, kidnapping and arson.

Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell in June vetoed a bill to abolish the death penalty, saying the state cannot tolerate people who commit particularly heinous murders.

Petit has taken on an active role, participating in fundraisers in memory of his family that benefit the causes they championed and lobbying lawmakers not to repeal the death penalty.

He thanked Rell for her veto and called capital punishment "what is required to maintain the fabric of our society."

A Quinnipiac poll released Nov. 7, 2007, less than four months after the killings found that 73 percent of Connecticut voters believed the two suspects in the Cheshire murders should be executed, while 23 percent said they shouldn't.

Gun permit applications in Cheshire, about 14 miles north of New Haven, jumped substantially after the Petits were attacked.

New laws lengthen sentences
The General Assembly passed new laws that lengthen sentences for repeat offenders, revamp the parole system and create a new crime of home invasion.

Connecticut has 10 men on death row, including a few sentenced 20 years ago. Besides appeals, a lawsuit alleging racial disparity in death sentences is delaying executions.

If Hayes and Komisarjevsky are convicted and sentenced to die, their appeals could easily continue for decades. In 2005, Connecticut serial killer Michael Ross was the first person executed in New England in 45 years — even after waiving his appeals, Ross was behind bars for more than 20 years before he was put to death.

"It was a load off of our shoulders," said Edwin Shelly, whose daughter was Ross' seventh victim. "The hate is gone because there is no one to hate."

Raymond Roode, whose daughter also was killed by Ross, said he is glad Ross was executed.

"The finality of the death penalty is the thing that appeals to me," Roode said. "It doesn't matter how long it takes."