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Komisarjevsky sentenced to death for fatal home invasion

By Alaine Griffin, The Hartford Courant

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Jurors decided on the death penalty Friday for home invasion killer Joshua Komisarjevsky, rejecting weeks of defense evidence that portrayed him as a man damaged by childhood sexual abuse and a strict religious upbringing while struggling with longtime mental health issues.

After deliberating for nearly 20 hours over five days, a jury of seven women and five men decided that Komisarjevsky, 31, a serial burglar from Cheshire, Conn., should be executed for the torture and murders of Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 48, and their daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, during a home invasion and arson at their Cheshire home on July 23, 2007.

Dr. William Petit Jr., a prominent Connecticut physician who was badly beaten with a baseball bat and tied to a pole in the basement during the attack, was able to break free during the break-in and escape before the fire consumed his home.

Komisarjevsky stood just a few feet from Petit inside the courtroom, his hands clasped behind his back. He showed no emotion as the first death sentences were read.

One of his defense lawyers, Jeremiah Donovan said, “I guess I will spend the rest of my life wondering what I could have done or said to persuade the jurors mercy should have seasoned justice in this case.”

Walter C. Bansley, another member of the defense team, said he would not have done anything different in the case except push harder for a change of venue for the trial. The defense team’s request to move the trial to Stamford, Conn., was rejected by Judge Jon C. Blue. They had argued that potential jurors in and around the Cheshire area were prejudiced by pre-trial publicity.

“Josh has been realistic from the beginning, and he understands the public sentiment is very much against him,” Bansley said. “I always said he couldn’t get a fair jury.”

“He wants to live for his family. He wants to live for his daughter,” said defense attorney Todd Bussert.

Komisarjevsky was eligible for the death penalty on six capital counts: killing Hawke-Petit and Michaela and Hayley in the course of a single action; killing a child under the age of 16; killing Hawke-Petit in the course of a kidnapping; killing Hayley in the course of a kidnapping; killing Michaela in the course of a kidnapping; and killing Michaela in the course of a sexual assault.

During nearly six weeks of penalty phase testimony, Komisarjevsky’s attorneys argued that a series of mitigating factors — including Komisarjevsky’s “significantly impaired” mental capacity and the minor role they say he played in the crime — warranted a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Defense attorneys presented evidence from mental health experts and friends and family that they said showed Komisarjevsky suffered from a serious longtime mood disorder, which worsened after Komisarjevsky suffered a series of concussions, took drugs and grew up in an ultra conservative rule-driven Christian household with parents unwilling to seek psychiatric care for him following sexual abuse and periods of depression.

But the jury found those mitigating circumstances did not outweigh the aggravating factors:

that Komisarjevsky committed the murders of Hawke-Petit and her daughters in “an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner” and “knowingly created a grave risk of death to another person.”

Donovan said they did not seek an insanity defense for Komisarjevsky because the “evidence was not strong enough.” Bansley added, “We didn’t want to pull any defense games.”

In his 38 years as a prosecutor, this was New Haven State’s Attorney’s Michael Dearington’s second death sentence.

Komisarjevsky did not testify during the trial and did not give an unsworn statement to the jury. He did speak to the judge without the jury present while voicing his objections to having a video of his 9-year-old daughter played for jurors during the penalty phase. In the 52-minute video, about two minutes was spent talking about Komisarjevsky whom the girl referred to as “Josh,” not as her dad or father.

“We didn’t think it was in his best interest to testify,” Bansley said. “When we say he is a damaged individual, you get a mixed bag with all of that. The severity of his damage would have been obvious, and it would have alienated him from the jury.”

Komisarjevsky was convicted Oct. 13 of breaking into the Petit home, beating Petit and tying up and torturing the family as he and his accomplice, Steven Hayes, ransacked the home for cash and valuables.

Testimony during Komisarjevsky’s trial showed that at one point in the break-in, Hayes forced Hawke-Petit to go to the bank to withdraw money. During that time, according to his own confession, Komisarjevsky sexually assaulted Michaela.

When Hawke-Petit and Hayes returned from the bank, Hayes raped and strangled Hawke-Petit. The house and the girls’ bodies were doused with gasoline and the home was set on fire as the intruders fled, testimony showed. Hayley and Michaela died of smoke inhalation.
Hayes, 47, was convicted of the killings last year and sentenced to death.

Six of the 17 charges that Komisarjevsky was convicted on were capital felony charges, which meant he automatically faced a death penalty hearing, in which jurors would decide whether he should be sentenced to death by lethal injection or life in prison without the possibility of release.

Komisarjevsky’s defense team insisted that although Komisarjevsky went to the Petit home to steal, he never planned to kill the family.

But prosecutors depicted Komisarjevsky as having played a major role in the crime, describing him as a predator out to get not only money in the home invasion but also 11-year-old Michaela.

In a taped police confession played for jurors, Komisarjevsky admitted seeing Hawke-Petit and Michaela at a local supermarket shortly before the home invasion and following them home.

He also admitted sexually molesting Michaela while she was tied to her bed wearing a pillowcase over her head. He also admited that he tied up the family and brutally beat Petit with a baseball bat.

©2011 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

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