While he sat on Connecticut's death row late in 2011, the trial of his accomplice in the Cheshire home invasion killings was underway in a New Haven courtroom. Joshua Komisarjevsky's lawyers were rolling out a no-holds-barred, detailed defense, revealing every nuance of the young man's life to try and save him from the death penalty.
And Hayes' name kept coming up.
Was there any point in listening to a career criminal, a man Superior Court Judge Jon C. Blue labeled as "universally despised, with good reason" ?
Was there anything a man who had brutally murdered a mother and her two daughters had to say?
State Sen. Edith Prague, a key player in the state's death penalty debate, didn't seem to think so. She said she didn't even bother reading a letter Hayes sent to her earlier this year.
"I was so pissed that he would have the nerve to write me," Prague said.
Yet Hayes' trial, which concluded a year earlier, ended with some questions that had yet to be answered.
Were his suicide attempts, including one that halted jury selection in his case for six weeks, genuine, or just the manipulations of a killer desperate for a shred of sympathy?
What was behind Hayes' bombshell decision to change his plea to guilty only to reverse it again?
Why did the penalty phase of his trial — the time when attorneys would typically fight for his life — lack testimony from Hayes' family members, mitigation evidence his veteran defense lawyers were known to present in past cases?
And — did he really kill 17 other women?
Hayes had made that chilling claim in letters, including one sent to The Courant, that defense attorneys pushed to have included as evidence in Komisarjevsky's trial.
Hayes' offer to talk, while troubling, appeared to have a purpose.
"I need to clear my conscience," Hayes wrote.
The quiet road leading to Northern Correctional Institution, which houses Connecticut's death row, cuts through scenic open fields in Somers where passing cars send flocks of birds rushing up into the sky. Northern, a concrete fortress surrounded by layers of silver barbed wire, is a blemish on the picturesque landscape.
To get to death row, visitors must sign in and clear a security checkpoint. A correction officer leads visitors to a slow-running elevator that opens into a long, dimly lit corridor. The walk to the end of the hallway is more than 200 paces.
The visiting area sits beyond a locked metal door that slides open slowly. Visitors sit on gray, cylinder-shaped concrete seats built into the floor, and use a telephone to talk to the inmate on the other side of a glass partition.
Before Hayes sat down one recent afternoon, correction officers removed his handcuffs. The loud clanking of opening and closing jail cell doors was constant, but it was the sound of an inmate, screaming and groaning in the background, that was hard to ignore.
"I'm used to that," Hayes said. "I don't even hear it anymore."
Death And Oysters
The three-page, handwritten letter on lined notebook paper came from "S. Hayes. No. 97425'' in October 2011.
The claim he made was chilling: The Petit family members weren't his only murders. He also had killed 17 other women, all runaways, hitchhikers and prostitutes. The story had come up during Komisarjevsky's trial, when defense lawyers raised it in a bid to shift blame away from their client, whose defense included pointing the finger for the Petit murders at Hayes.
Judge Blue, the trial judge, was skeptical.
"If they are true," Blue scoffed, "he's one of the great serial killers in modern American history."
But Hayes' claims, though arguably difficult to believe, were eerie. And now he was willing to give details about "every victim, all 17 and where they can be found and the whole story behind it."
The letter said he had made some of the girls he kidnapped "pack some of their stuff" or write good-bye notes to loved ones. Hayes claimed no one reported the first hitchhiker he killed missing because no one cared about her.
"With most, a second and third note would be written, by the girls themselves, and I would mail these weeks and months later. The notes would be detailed and disarming. This was key because while the girl would be gone within hours, the notes gave the appearance of what I wanted, a runaway or a girl who left her boyfriend or a hooker drug addict who went to greener pastures," Hayes wrote.
But now, sitting behind the glass partition, Hayes, dressed in a yellow prison jumpsuit with rectangle reading glasses propped on the crown of his head, was quick to admit it was all a lie, a manipulation. He appeared more lucid and animated than the deadened, grimacing man sitting in the courtroom in the fall of 2010 during his trial.
"I made it up," Hayes said.
In this case, he said, it was another bid to kill himself. Portraying himself as an even more notorious criminal than he already was, he said, was just part of his elaborate plan to end his time on Connecticut's death row.
Hayes, 49, explained that by writing from prison about the bogus killing spree, he hoped authorities would seize his letters and notify police. His plan was to trade information for food — he wanted police to buy his story and grant his request for soda, a pepperoni pizza and a dozen oysters with hot sauce.
He is deathly allergic to oysters.
"I planned to eat them and have them find me dead in my cell the next morning," he said.
Like Hayes' previous suicide attempts, though, this ploy was a flop.
And the efforts he said he'd gone through to craft a credible story gives credence to those who see him as no more than a conniving manipulator. He said he did his homework, reading crime novels and studying the murders of serial killer Ted Bundy.
Bundy confessed to killing 30 women in seven states before he was executed by electric chair on Jan. 24, 1989.
New Haven State's Attorney Michael Dearington declined to discuss specifics about the state police probe into Hayes' claims, but said it is "an open investigation."
A Promise To Live
Hayes' purported desire to die has been a constant theme of his defense since the July 23, 2007 killings.
Hayes raped and strangled Jennifer Hawke-Petit. Her daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, died of smoke inhalation after they were doused with gasoline and the house was set ablaze. Komisarjevsky admitted that he sexually assaulted Michaela. Only Dr. William A. Petit Jr., Hawke-Petit's husband and the girls' father — whom Komisarjevsky viciously beat in the head with a baseball bat — survived.
Hayes said he expected to die as he and Komisarjevsky fled the burning Petit home. He expected Cheshire police officers to shoot him when they saw the fake but authentic-looking gun he was carrying or when Komisarjevsky rammed their getaway vehicle into a police cruiser.
Instead, he and Komisarjevsky were immediately arrested and forever linked to one of the most horrendous crimes in Connecticut history.
As his trial was getting underway, Hayes was found unconscious in his prison cell after overdosing on prescription medication. Testimony at his trial showed that the attempt was another on a list of suicide attempts he made before and after the Cheshire killings.
To end his life, Hayes said, he slashed his wrists, slammed his mother's car into a rock and tied a sock around his neck, according to trial testimony. He even fantasized about putting his head in a prison cell toilet and doing a back flip, but didn't for fear he would survive but be paralyzed.
At Northern, he said, he still thinks of ways to die. Every day, Hayes said, he paces for hours in his cell, trying to relieve his anxiety. It doesn't work. Thoughts of the killings — and a host of other crimes that have sent him shuffling back and forth to prison since 1993 — return to him in nightmares, he said.
Hayes used to read crime novels in prison, but since being on death row, he said, he no longer reads. "I just can't concentrate anymore," Hayes said.
The frustration of being in a place where he no longer can "make it right" gives him constant anxiety attacks. In one recent episode, he ended up slamming his head against the metal ladder to the bunk bed in his cell.
Other potential distractions — like the sitcoms and dramas he watches on the television in his cell — also make him think about his past. A show he recently watched that included a character having a baby only reminded him that he'd been in prison when one of his two children was born. And, he said, watching news reports about crimes brings back the Cheshire killings.
But was Hayes lying then — and now? Was his death wish real or a ploy for sympathy?
Prosecutors at his trial fought against the defense's portrayal of Hayes as a depressed, guilt-ridden and suicidal drug addict so hellbent on being executed that he planned to show no remorse at his trial in front of the jury.
They painted a much different portrait: that of a manipulative inmate shrewdly aware how his self-professed suicide attempts — and the prison system's reporting of them — could affect whether he would be sentenced to death or to life in prison without the possibility of release.
So, who was right — the defense or the prosecution?
If Hayes is so eager to die, why not just do what serial killer Michael Ross did: give up his appeals and let the state put a needle in his arm? Ross was put to death in May 2005, the first person executed in Connecticut since 1960. There would be no shortage of people who would be pleased if Hayes became the next.
Hayes shook his head.
"I promised Tom I wouldn't do that," he said, referring to his defense lawyer, New Haven Public Defender Thomas J. Ullmann.
No Family Testimony
Ullmann, with permission from Hayes to talk to The Courant about his case, confirmed his pact with Hayes.
"He's made that promise to me," Ullmann said. "There are some people out there who think that because of Steven Hayes' suicidal ideation, he will waive all of his appeals" outside of a mandated automatic appeal.
"He has made a commitment to me that he will not pull a Michael Ross."
The promise was, in a sense, a payback for Hayes' determination to keep Ullmann and Patrick Culligan of the state's Public Defender's Office capital defense unit from bringing Hayes' family members to the witness stand.
In April 2010, months before his trial began, Hayes dropped a bombshell on the proceedings. He blurted in court that he wanted to plead guilty to the Cheshire killings. Hayes made the offer without the benefit of a plea bargain, even though prosecutors never entertained any offers from the defense of a guilty plea in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table.
Hayes' decision to change his plea stunned the court and pitted him against his own attorneys, who vowed to fight his decision and try to keep him off death row.
At the time, Hayes said that he wanted to die and that he could not bear going to court each day for what essentially would be two trials: He fully expected to be convicted and then face the penalty phase of the trial. He said he feared what the notoriety of the case would do to his family, especially his adult son, Steven, and daughter, Alicia.
Hayes said his defense team had planned to present mitigation evidence from family members and bring some of them, including his willing daughter, who Hayes said is in the military, to the witness stand.
But Hayes said he didn't want anyone "making excuses" for what he did and television news cameras chasing his children and their mother down the street after court.
So he cut a deal. He said he agreed to change his plea back to not guilty if Ullmann and Culligan kept his family out of his trial.
"He was really insistent about that," Ullmann said.
He and Culligan complied because going against Hayes, Ullmann said, would have affected their relationship with Hayes and the team's ability to discuss its defense strategy.
"There are some lawyers who could say you could make that commitment but not honor it," Ullmann said. "That's the problem with defending a death penalty case. Sometimes you're forced to makes these bargains with the devil in order to manage the case properly."
Hayes said he knew his decision to keep his family out of the trial was difficult for Ullmann and Culligan.
If Hayes' daughter, Alicia, had taken the witness stand, Ullmann noted, she would have testified at about the same age as Hayley Petit was when she was killed.
At Komisarjevsky's trial, attorneys showed jurors a videotape of Komisarjevsky's 9-year-old daughter to bolster testimony from a child welfare expert who said Komisarjevsky's execution could be "very damaging" to the "bright, engaging and sparkly" girl.
In the end, though, jurors rejected weeks of defense evidence that portrayed Komisarjevsky as a man damaged by childhood sexual abuse, a strict religious upbringing and longtime mental health issues.
One More Question
Not long after Komisarjevsky was sent to death row in the second Cheshire trial, the Connecticut legislature passed a historic measure to abolish the death penalty.
But lawmakers, with the horror of the Cheshire slayings still clearly on their minds, insisted that the measure be prospective, meaning those already on death row would remain there.
Although his case is on appeal and he is one of the 10 death row inmates in an upcoming habeas corpus trial claiming there is racial, ethnic and geographic disparity in the way the death penalty is administered in Connecticut, Hayes said he doesn't give much thought to the possibility of his death sentence being commuted, an issue that probably could be argued at the state's highest court.
Hayes said that he believes he deserves the death penalty and that he was disappointed by the legislature's vote to repeal capital punishment, calling it "unfortunate." He said he still views his death sentence as "a welcome relief," even though it could easily be 20 years or more before he is brought to Northern's execution chamber.
Life, he said, is now about thinking about his past, whether he wants to or not, realizing there was a reason he survived his past suicide attempts.
"I think I've survived because I am meant to live with the thoughts of what I did to that family."
Asked what he might say or write to Dr. Petit if given the chance, Hayes quickly wrote off the possibility.
"He doesn't want to hear from me," Hayes said.
And while those thoughts may infiltrate his mind, Hayes declined to discuss his specific role in the killings. He said he doesn't talk to Komisarjevsky and sees him occasionally "from a distance" on death row.
Hayes wanted to talk — but not about everything.
Including one last unanswered question.
Jurors convicted Komisarjevsky on all counts. Hayes was convicted on all counts except for one: first-degree arson. In his confession to police, Komisarjevsky said Hayes suggested that they kill the family and burn down the house. He said he saw Hayes set fire to the gas-drenched Petit home.
So did he, in fact, light the match?
Hayes wouldn't say.
"We both know what we're culpable for," he said.