Justice Delayed

As we pass the two-year anniversary of the tragic home invasion in Cheshire with still no trial in sight, our thoughts turn to Connecticut's lumbering justice system.

 

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Early two years ago, on July 23, 2007, unimaginable horror invaded the Petit home in Cheshire. Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, 17-year-old Hayley and 11-year-old Michaela, were murdered after being held for hours during the night. Somehow Dr. William Petit survived, despite having been severely beaten and his house set afire in an attempt to cover up the crimes. Two career criminals, Steven J. Hayes and Joshua A. Komisarjevsky, were caught while bungling their escape and ramming the Petits' car into police vehicles surrounding the house. Capital murder was among the more than 20 charges filed against each of them.

Each man has been held on $15 million bond since then. Today, the cases against them are still inching slowly to trial while unhealable wounds remain in a community trying to recover from an unthinkable crime. And although it's hard to muster any sympathy for two men accused of such horrific crimes, the fact is they too deserve to be held accountable and have their days in court.

We want justice to be swift and sure. As William Petit by now is painfully aware, it does not come swiftly. Getting to trial in a capital-murder case is usually a journey that takes years. Even so, during his agonizing testimony in March at a General Assembly Judiciary Committee hearing on whether the state should ban the death penalty, Petit said of the long legal process: "It's delay, delay, delay for no apparent reason." 

Even if Hayes and Komisarjevsky were to be convicted and sentenced to death sometime next year, it could be decades before the sentence would be carried out. Nearly 50 years have passed since the state executed anyone against his will. (Michael Ross, executed in 2005, demanded that his sentence be carried out.)

Jury selection in the Hayes case is not expected to begin for at least six more months-January 2010, at the earliest. New Haven State's Attorney Michael Dearington, who along with all the lawyers involved is prohibited from discussing the case because the trial judge imposed a gag order, would say only that Komisarjevsky's trial will follow. Dearington has said previously that he was considering trying both men simultaneously before separate juries. If he were to try Komisarjevsky after Hayes, that trial might not take place till 2011.

If jury selection starts in January, the trial probably will take place late next year, though no date has yet been set. Finding qualified jurors-and ones who have not already formed an opinion in the case-is likely to be a tedious, time-consuming affair. By some estimates it might take six months or more to seat a jury, which could put the first trial off till fall 2010. By then, more than three years will have passed since the crime was committed.

"Jury selection can be a very lengthy process because Connecticut is one of the states that allow what's called individual voir dire, which allows lawyers to conduct individualized questioning of each prospective juror," observes Quinnipiac Law School Associate Professor Jeffrey A. Meyer. "That can take a very long time."

Special rules apply to jury selection in capital cases, too, says University of Connecticut law professor Todd Fernow, who heads the law school's Criminal Law Clinic. The state has the right to eliminate potential jurors so opposed to the death penalty that they would never impose it, which "adds a whole extra layer of questioning into the process," he says. Questions from the defense also will explore people's feelings about punishment, things they would never have to ask in non-capital cases. "The complexity in every aspect of the case, including picking a jury, is exponentially higher in a capital case by several degrees," Fernow says.  

Further complicating jury selection is the international attention the case has drawn. "I don't think they can move this case to another part of the country where no one's heard about it," says longtime New Haven defense lawyer John Walkley, who has tried more than a dozen capital cases.

Meanwhile, the jury selection process has not yet begun-not even close. Clearly, the criminal-justice system is not built for speed. Rather, it is a deliberate, ponderous process designed primarily to protect the rights of people accused of crimes, and in capital cases, people who if convicted might spend the remainder of their days in prison or forfeit their lives. The most important thing, as we have learned from recent exonerations around the country, is to get it right. And that takes time.

Three years or more does seem excessive, however, especially when the two alleged perpetrators were caught at the scene.

Justice Delayed

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