The mental-competency hearing granted Wednesday to Steven Hayes, charged in the 2007 triple homicide in Cheshire, will focus on a narrow issue and not lay the groundwork for an insanity defense.
"A competency determination asks two questions: Can he understand the proceedings, and can he communicate sufficiently with his counsel to aid in his defense," said James Alan Fox, professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University and an expert on multiple homicides and death-penalty cases.
"An insanity defense is different. It goes to a defendant's state of mind at the time of the crime," Fox said. "Competency is here and now."
Fox also said that a defendant found to be incompetent often can be restored to competency relatively quickly, with treatment and medication.
"It's a way to delay the system; not a way to beat the system," Fox said.
Dr. William Petit Jr., lone survivor of a home invasion and attack that killed his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and their two daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, spoke in measured tones Wednesday outside the courtroom after the judge granted the hearing.
"I think we all believe it's just another delay tactic," said Petit, who was badly beaten during the attack. "We hope when he's examined, the forensic examiner finds he's competent to sit for jury selection and that he'll be here for trial."
Petit has expressed deep frustration over a six-week delay in jury selection caused by Hayes' jail-cell suicide attempt in late January.
The defense request for a competency hearing came seven days after a psychiatrist for the Department of Correction said she found that Hayes was capable of participating in jury selection, a process that had resumed Monday.
Petit said he wondered why the request was made after, not during, the break in jury selection. "If it was a significant issue, why wasn't it brought up during the six-week hiatus? It's being brought up now at, I assume, a considerable cost to taxpayers," he said.
Six jurors have been selected thus far; a total of 20 must be picked before the evidence portion of the trial, scheduled for September, can start. The panel will consist of 12 jurors, six alternates and two substitute alternates. Hayes is being tried separately from co-defendant Joshua Komisarjevsky. The two face the death penalty.
Hayes' lawyer, Thomas Ullmann, said it became clear to him during jury selection this week that Hayes was withdrawn, disconnected from the process, and not answering questions from his lawyers. Ullmann said he also noticed that Hayes was making involuntary muscle movements, and said that when Hayes did talk, it was only to try to urge his lawyers to waive his right to be present in court while a jury is chosen. Ullmann and co-counsel Patrick Culligan have strongly advised Hayes against waiving that right.
Superior Court Judge Jon C. Blue granted the competency hearing.
"Obviously, I'm not happy about the development," Blue said in court Wednesday morning, "but the court views counsel's motion as one made in good faith."
Blue said the request could be justified, and that another judge already had determined that there was sufficient evidence to believe that Hayes committed the crimes. He said those were the only two elements that had to be satisfied for a competency hearing to be granted.
Jury selection will now be suspended at least until after the competency hearing April 1. Members of Petit's extended family quietly discussed a question in the courthouse hallway Wednesday: What if Hayes' withdrawn demeanor continues and the forensic examiner can't solicit enough from Hayes to make a determination?
Louis B. Schlesinger, professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said, "If he doesn't cooperate with the examiner because of a mental illness, he'd be treated for that illness until he's restored to competency, and the trial would resume."
Schlesinger said that if it is determined that a defendant is holding back or faking in any way, "then the examiner would give that opinion in court and a judge could order the trial to continue. A defendant can't hold the court hostage."
Petit said he thinks Hayes will be deemed competent and that a jury eventually will be picked.
"I think we're going to get there, but they are making it as difficult as possible," he said.
At that point, Jennifer-Hawke Petit's sister, Cindy Hawke-Renn of Chapel Hill, N.C., spoke up.
"It's interesting — no one is monitoring him," she said, gesturing to Petit. "No one cares about Bill's frustration level."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun