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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Prosecutors and defense lawyers both have full caseloads, too. A case's high profile does not necessarily give it a higher priority. Cases already in the system must be dealt with first, for it would be unfair to either the accused or the victims to table their cases to take up one with a higher public profile. "If there's any delay in the system," says Connelly, picking up a summary of about 200 pending major cases, "it's just the number of cases that have to be handled." From the defense's perspective, "You always have some other business that you've got to attend to," says Walkley. "So you're not attending to it 100 percent of your time."
Capital cases come in two phases, a guilt phase that determines whether the accused committed the crime, and a penalty phase if a jury finds the defendant guilty. In addition to preparing for the guilt phase, lawyers on both sides also must prepare for a guilty verdict, for sentencing usually takes place before the same jury soon afterward. While Hayes' and Komisarjevsky's guilt or innocence remains a question for a jury, if they are found guilty ultimately it will be the penalty phase that will determine their fates. In death-penalty cases, penalty-phase preparation requires an almost unimaginable attention to detail. "Many times, convincing a jury or a three-judge panel that the murder was committed with an aggravating factor that invokes the death penalty can be even more difficult than proving that the guy did it," says Connelly, who successfully prosecuted five of the ten men currently on death row.
To get a death sentence, the prosecution must not only present the facts that support the aggravating circumstances that warrant the ultimate penalty, it also must anticipate the mitigating circumstances the defense will present to persuade the jury that life imprisonment is sufficient punishment. "You have to prove the aggravating factors that are listed in the statute-especially cruel, heinous or depraved-beyond a reasonable doubt. Then the defense, of course, has an opportunity to put on evidence that they claim is mitigating, reasons why the defendant should be spared. There's a lot of preparation that goes into that," Connelly says.
Preparing for a capital trial requires deploying every resource available. "Both sides are scrambling, amassing data, and that's just on the guilt phase," Fernow says. "The mitigation phase is a very detailed, painstaking process of going into someone's entire life from the very beginning. You need to spend all your time working on both aspects for the entire period of time it takes to actually come to trial."
Is the justice system broken? As with most legal issues, that's a matter to be argued.
"I think not," says Walkley. "I think the system is working the way it's supposed to." He cites a case he handled in Bridgeport in which the judge hurried things along. "It was not a good process," he says. "Waiting two to three years to get to trial is certainly a lot better than rushing to trial and maybe having a sentence imposed that wasn't deserved. There have been a lot of exonerations throughout the United States."
While conceding that what he calls a "garden-variety, vanilla case" could be brought to trial more quickly, Walkley notes that "this case is different. I think it's in everybody's interest, including the defendants', to make sure that it's done right. From all I can see, everything so far is being done right, and the lawyers are being given the time they need to prepare."
Quinnipiac law professor Jeffrey Meyer, a former federal prosecutor, sees it differently. "It doesn't reflect particularly well on [us]," he says. "This is a sad reality of the state court system-it is absolutely deluged in cases and takes an extraordinary amount of time to bring cases to trial. That's especially so in a death-penalty context. It's one thing to have a case take a number of months, maybe a year. But when a case takes so long without a clear reason for the amount of delay, I think it's harder in terms of having a resolution for society."
State Sen. Sam Caligiuri, whose 16th District includes Cheshire and who, with Petit and his sister Johanna Petit-Chapman, formed the Three Strikes Now Coalition, is not happy with the length of time it takes to bring capital cases to trial. But as a lawyer he understands the process. "Speaking on a purely human level, I would have liked to have seen this move faster than it has," he says, "but each case is different and each case progresses at its own pace, and I think that has to be kept in mind."
As for Dr. William Petit, three years is an agonizingly long time to wait to see justice served on the men accused of viciously destroying the family he held so dear.