Cheshire Killings: Hayes' Lawyers Vow To Fight A Guilty Plea


Steven Hayes' surprising offer Thursday to plead guilty to the 2007 Cheshire home-invasion killings — without some type of plea bargain — has pitted him against his own attorneys, who are vowing to fight his decision and keep him off death row.

Hayes stunned the court when he told Judge Jon C. Blue that he wanted to change his plea. The revelation came minutes after Hayes' attorneys waived a competency hearing and cleared the way for jury selection in the trial to resume.

Blue, speaking from the bench, said "certain indications" in the competency report assessing Hayes' mental health obligated him to question Hayes directly. The report was not made public.

Blue reminded Hayes of his rights and asked if he understood all the charges against him. "You feel you know what's going on?" Blue asked.

"Yeah," Hayes replied quietly. He did not stand when the judge addressed him, remaining seated next to his lawyers.

Blue told Hayes he needed to know from Hayes himself if he wanted to change his pleas.

Hayes said he did "wish to change" his pleas.

If accepted, a guilty plea would negate the guilt phase of his trial but not the death-penalty phase, in which a jury or a three-judge panel would decide whether Hayes would be executed or sentenced to life in prison. Hayes is charged with multiple murder, kidnapping, sexual assault, burglary, larceny and arson charges, some of which are capital felonies.

"This is potentially a momentous development in the case," Blue said.

Rare Request

Hayes is one of two men accused of killing Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, during a break-in, attack and arson inside their Cheshire home on July 23, 2007. Hawke-Petit's husband and the girls' father, Dr. William Petit Jr., was beaten in the attack.

The other suspect, Joshua Komisarjevsky, is to be tried separately.

By offering to plead guilty, Hayes joined a short list of defendants in recent state history who opted to plead guilty to a capital felony without some type of plea bargain that would insulate them from the death penalty.

Terry Johnson, charged with the 1991 murder of state Trooper Russell Bagshaw, surprised the court with a guilty plea. Todd Rizzo did the same when he admitted bludgeoning 13-year-old Stanley Edwards IV in Waterbury in 1997, as did Scott Pickles, the Groton lawyer and former naval officer accused of killing his wife and two small children that same year.

Of the three, only Rizzo remains on death row. The Supreme Court overturned Johnson's death sentence, and Pickles was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.

But Hayes, unlike the other defendants, could face a roadblock because his lawyers, Public Defender Thomas J. Ullmann and co-counsel Patrick J. Culligan, plan to fight his decision, a move other defense lawyers said they support.

"It appears Hayes is trying to jump-start his own death," veteran New Haven defense lawyer Norman A. Pattis said. "The judge may have to appoint an independent counsel to represent Hayes because I can't imagine Tom Ullmann is going to stand by and allow him to in effect plead guilty to the death penalty."

Stephen B. Bright, president and senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights, questioned the timing of Hayes' change-of-plea offer.