NEW HAVEN — It's a word Dr. William Petit Jr. has waited to hear since his family was killed in a brutal home invasion in Cheshire more than three years ago.
On Tuesday, Petit heard "guilty" uttered 16 times inside a hushed and crowded courtroom. Each time he said it, the middle-aged jury foreman nodded confidently while looking at Steven Hayes, the man in the courtroom responsible for the murders of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters, Hayley and Michaela.
Petit, who was badly beaten but survived the July 23, 2007, break-in, attack and arson at his Cheshire home, sat in the gallery with his head down, fighting back tears. An emotionless Hayes, once a burly man in his police mug shot but now thin and scraggly at 47, never looked at the jury. He stared straight ahead toward the judge's bench as the counts were read.
The foreman's colleagues — seven women and four men — were just as resolute. When polled as a group, their affirmations of "yes" to each guilty verdict were clear and bold.
Hayes was found guilty on 16 of 17 counts, including three counts of murder, six counts of capital felony, the sexual assault of Hawke-Petit, four counts of first-degree kidnapping, third-degree burglary and the baseball-bat assault on Petit. The jury acquitted him on one count: first-degree arson.
Conviction on the capital felony charges means Hayes automatically faces a death penalty hearing in which jurors will decide whether Hayes lives or dies. That penalty phase of the trial will begin Oct. 18.
Shortly after the verdict was read, Petit, with his father, William Petit Sr., gripping his arm for support, spoke to reporters in the rain on the courthouse steps. Johanna Petit Chapman, his sister, rested her head on her brother's arm before he spoke.
Keeping his composure as he patiently answered questions, Petit said he believed Hawke-Petit and the girls were praying for him and his family so they would have the strength to endure.
"We did our best to keep our faith in God that justice would be served," Petit said. "There is some relief, but my family is still gone. It doesn't bring them back. It doesn't bring back the home that we had, but certainly a guilty verdict is a much better sense of relief than a verdict of not guilty."
He thanked well-wishers from Connecticut and across the country for all of the e-mails, letters and donations to the Petit Family Foundation. He also thanked the jury.
"We really thank the jury for their due diligence and careful consideration of the charges and reaching what we feel is an appropriate verdict. 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," he said.
Asked how he has the strength to keep going, to attend the penalty phase of the trial, Petit looked out at the media and bystanders forming a semicircle around him, filling Church Street in front of the courthouse, and said: "Most of you out here are good human beings. You'd probably do the same thing for your family if your family was destroyed by evil."
He admitted it will be tough.
"So, do I really want to do it? Do I look forward to the ride every day? No. You know, I have a little nausea every time I get off the exit ramp, a little nausea every time I get out of the car and walk across the street. But I think I do it for my family. … All of you, I think, would do the same thing for your families," he said.
Under 5 Hours To Decide
Hayes was convicted of breaking into the Petit home with another man, Joshua Komisarjevsky, in the middle of the night, beating Petit and tying up the family as they ransacked the home for cash and valuables. Testimony showed that at one point, Hayes forced Hawke-Petit to go to the bank to withdraw money. During that time, according to testimony, Komisarjevsky sexually assaulted 11-year-old Michaela.
When Hawke-Petit and Hayes returned from the bank, Hayes raped and strangled Hawke-Petit, 48, and the house was doused with gasoline and set on fire as the intruders fled, testimony showed. Hayley, 17, and her younger sister died from smoke inhalation.
After more than two dozen witnesses, nearly 200 exhibits and eight days of grueling testimony that moved some jurors to tears, the jury spent less than a full day — about 4 1/2 hours — deliberating Hayes' fate.
Judge Jon C. Blue told jurors to knock on the jury deliberation room door when they reached a verdict. That knock came about 12:30 p.m., sending journalists sitting on one side of the courtroom gallery scrambling for their notebooks, pens, laptops and cellphones.
On the other side, members of the Petit and Hawke families appeared to hold their breath. Johanna Petit Chapman, embraced by her father and husband, shook. As jurors left the deliberation room, few looked at Hayes. Several looked over at Petit and his family.
Once the judge ordered Hayes to stand, the foreman responded to each of the court clerk's questions about the charges. With each "guilty" verdict, family members appeared to breathe easier and sob.
Before dismissing the jurors, Blue thanked them for their services but added, "as you know, they are not over." The same jurors will return for the penalty phase. Blue cautioned them against speaking publicly about the case.
Blue then banged his fist on his desk, adjourning court and starting a wave of hugs and kisses shared by the Petit and Hawke families.
Judicial marshals walked over to Hayes and handcuffed him.
After a brief discussion, New Haven Public Defender Thomas J. Ullmann — who watched the jury as the verdicts were read — patted Hayes on the back. The marshals then led Hayes out of the courtroom.
Petit smiled through tears as he talked with New Haven State's Attorney Michael Dearington. In his long career as a prosecutor, Dearington has never sent a convicted killer to death row.
Before his trial, Hayes offered repeatedly to plead guilty to the slayings in exchange for a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release. His defense attorneys said his offers were rejected, but prosecutors have not commented on the issue.
Prosecutors portrayed Hayes, 47, of Winsted, as a broke and desperate man willing to do anything — including kill — for money.
During the trial, prosecutors brought Petit to the witness stand. Jurors listened to Petit's own harrowing account of the baseball bat beating he suffered. A police detective also recounted his version of a chilling confession Hayes gave to police and text messages Hayes and Komisarjevsky sent to each other before the attack, including one in which Hayes says: "Im chomping at the bit to get started."
When Komisarjevsky replied, telling him to "hold your horses," Hayes wrote back: "Dude the horses want 2 get loose! lol."
Jurors also viewed gruesome crime-scene photos showing the charred bodies of Hawke-Petit and Hayley, and Michaela bound to her bed by her arms and lying face down. They heard one police official describe photos taken on Komisarjevsky's cellphone of Michaela as she lay captive.
Hayes' defense team spent much of the trial pointing the finger at Komisarjevsky, who they said escalated what was supposed to be a quick break-in at the Petit home into violence.
The defense conceded that Hayes was guilty of sexually assaulting and murdering Hawke-Petit but maintained that the state did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Hayes intended to kill Hayley and Michaela.
The defense said although testimony showed Hayes said he poured gasoline "down the stairs," what Hayes really said was that he poured it "downstairs." The two girls were upstairs when they died of smoke inhalation. Hawke-Petit, who was strangled, died downstairs.
Both men have long criminal records and were recently paroled before the triple killings.
Acquitted Of Arson
Jurors were not allowed to discuss their deliberations Tuesday. But it appeared they had made up their minds rather quickly about most of the charges and spent most of their time haggling about whether Hayes was responsible for setting the fire.
At one point, jurors sent a note to the judge asking for the definition of "start of a fire." Blue referred them to the nearly 50 pages of charge instructions they received. The jury also asked, "Is the pouring of gas starting a fire?" Blue said no.
During the trial, prosecutors showed gas station surveillance footage of a man who resembled Hayes, with a tattoo similar to one Hayes has, pumping gasoline into one of the Petits' vehicles. A detective also testified that he smelled gasoline on Hayes shortly after his arrest the day of the killings.
But the defense raised questions about Hayes' role in the arson. In one exchange, Ullmann aggressively cross-examined Paul Makuc, a fire investigator who testified that a petroleum product "consistent with gasoline" helped fuel flames in a "rapid, quick and violent manner" through the Petit home.
Ullmann asked Makuc, "Does your science tell you who poured the gas?"
"No, it does not," Makuc replied.
"Does your science tell you who poured the gas upstairs?" Ullmann asked.
"No, it does not," Makuc said.
Ullmann then asked: "Does your science tell you who handled the containers?"
"No, it does not," Makuc replied.
Outside court Tuesday, Petit said he was not disappointed with the jury's acquittal on the arson charge. When asked about what he wanted the outcome of the death penalty to be, Petit said he didn't want to comment "and interject anything at this point that may affect the second part of the trial."
In a May 31, 2009, opinion piece in The Courant in support of the death penalty, Petit called the ultimate punishment "the appropriate societal response to the brutal and willful act of capital felony murder."
He said he supports execution "because it is just and because it prevents murderers from ever harming again. By intentionally, unlawfully taking the life of another, a murderer breaks a sacrosanct law of society and forfeits his own right to live."
Gov. M. Jodi Rell to issue a statement saying the verdicts were "a measure of justice — but they can never begin to restore the promise lost on that terrible day in July. That grief may ebb over time but it can never be fully expunged."
She commended Petit and his family "for the remarkable strength and dignity they have displayed throughout this agonizing ordeal — which, of course, will continue through the penalty phase, the trial of another suspect and the legal proceedings that are certain to follow. I know that the people of Connecticut will continue to keep the Petit and Hawke families in their thoughts and prayers in the months to come."
Last year, Rell vetoed a bill that would have repealed capital punishment in Connecticut.
Komisarjevsky, 30, of Cheshire, will be tried after Hayes' case is finished.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun