NEW HAVEN ——A soot-covered piece of paper on top of a desk in the Petit family's home office caught the eye of prosecutor Michael Dearington the day he walked through the charred remains of 300 Sorghum Mill Drive in Cheshire.
It was a letter announcing an important milestone in the life of 17-year-old high school senior Hayley Petit: She had been accepted into prestigious Dartmouth College — the alma mater of her father, a prominent Connecticut physician.
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Cheshire, CT, USA
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Now it was up to Dearington to get justice for the teen and her family with Connecticut's ultimate punishment — the death penalty — a verdict the longtime prosecutor had not been able to get in earlier cases and a sentence he rarely sought.
"That letter said so much about what happened there," Dearington said Monday during a rare interview about the Cheshire case, his first public interview since he began the all-consuming job of prosecuting Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky for the deadly Cheshire home invasion, possibly the most infamous crime in recent state history.
"Seeing it really brought home everything that used to be there and, now, everything that wasn't there," Dearington said of the letter. "That is one thing I will never forget."
Friday's sentencing in Superior Court of Komisarjevsky will be the end of a long and sometimes difficult road that Dearington, his co-counsel, Senior Assistant State's Attorney Gary Nicholson, and his staff have taken since Dearington walked through that horrific crime scene 4 1/2 years ago.
Although he acknowledged that he is not a proponent of the death penalty, Dearington said both Komisarjevsky and Hayes deserve to be on Connecticut's death row for the killings of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Hayley and Michaela, 11. Hawke-Petit's husband and the girls' father, Dr. William Petit Jr., was beaten during the home invasion but survived.
"I'm not a real fan of the death penalty, but we have it as the law here, and if it hadn't been imposed, we would have been greatly disappointed because that's what they deserved," Dearington said.
Yet Dearington admits that hearing Judge Jon C. Blue say to Hayes at sentencing last year, "May God have mercy on your soul," was chilling.
"It's not because of my feelings about the death penalty," Dearington said. "You just don't hear that too often in a courtroom."
The 'Despair Of Walking Through That Home'
On Monday, Dearington, 69, who is publicity shy and has a reputation for being tight-lipped about his cases, obliged a long-standing request for an interview, agreeing to a short meeting. He opened the door to his second-floor office inside the Church Street courthouse for the interview and looked at his wrist.
"Tick-tock, tick-tock," he said.
He answered some questions and refused others.
He repeated a line he's used throughout the high-profile Cheshire case: "It's not about me." And he said he didn't want to come off sounding "sappy" or say anything that could be used by defense attorneys appealing the death verdicts.
An inspector in Dearington's office, Robert Sage, who sat in on the interview, said Dearington seemed different in the way he handled the Hayes and Komisarjevsky prosecutions, but Dearington stopped him when he was asked to elaborate on those differences.
Sage did mention going through the fire-ravaged Petit home with Dearington, prompting Dearington to recall what he described as his "despair of walking through that home."
Sage also said that during a break from testimony in the Hayes case in 2010, he and Dearington stopped at the site where the Petit home once stood. After the slayings, the house was razed and neighbors and friends planted a colorful memorial garden.
"It was pretty emotional," Sage said.
Dearington declined to discuss the hardships of the cases, saying only that his staff worked long hours and that his wife "is glad it's over."
Dearington tried Hayes, 48, first in the fall of 2010 and took Komisarjevsky, 31, to trial last fall, convincing both juries that Hayes and Komisarjevsky — career criminals on parole at the time of the Cheshire killings — deserved to die for the killings. It was the first time Dearington, a four-decade veteran of the courtroom, had put someone on death row during his 25 years as the top prosecutor in New Haven's judicial district.
The July 23, 2007, home invasion rocked not only the quiet town of Cheshire but also the entire state as residents in the wake of the crime installed home burglar alarms and purchased firearms.
The Petits were randomly targeted, bound and tortured for hours as Komisarjevsky and Hayes, wearing masks, ransacked their home and later set it on fire with the family still inside.
Hawke-Petit was raped and strangled while her two daughters were tied to their beds. Michaela was sexually assaulted. Hayley, a star athlete, was able to break free, but unable to escape her burning home. Petit Jr. was viciously beaten with a baseball bat and left to die in the basement.
Hawke-Petit, 48, was a beloved nurse at Cheshire Academy, where she served as co-director of the school's health center. She had worked as a nurse at Yale-New Haven Hospital and volunteered for the Girl Scouts and Habitat for Humanity. She was an active member of the United Methodist Church in Cheshire.
Hayley and Michaela were top students, talented and civic-minded as well. Both were active in their church and in raising money for benefit walks for multiple sclerosis. Their mother was diagnosed in the mid-1990s with the chronic degenerative disease of the central nervous system.
Komisarjevsky admitted spotting Hawke-Petit and Michaela at a local supermarket hours before the crime and following them home.
Blames Komisarjevsky: 'He's The One' Who Started It
Dearington said that while evidence in the trials showed Hayes and Komisarjevsky are "equally culpable" for the crime, Dearington blames Komisarjevsky for starting it.
"He's the one who followed them home," Dearington said. "He's the one who set it up. He was the first one inside the home."
Dearington used Komisarjevsky's audiotaped police confession as evidence in his trial. The day it was played for jurors, one juror began to cry, prompting the judge to excuse the panel for the rest of the day.
"He was cool, calculated, collected," Dearington said of Komisarjevsky. "And he was laughing."
When asked whether the taped confession was the most compelling evidence at trial, Dearington grabbed a wallet-size photo taped to the monitor of his computer and held it up. The photo showed a smiling Hawke-Petit standing with her two daughters.
"This is the evidence that stands out," Dearington said.
Dearington said the decision to seek execution for Hayes and Komisarjevsky was a "no-brainer" though he and Nicholson did discuss it. Both Hayes and Komisarjevsky had offered to plead guilty to the slayings and avoid the trials in exchange for life sentences without parole.
"Every discussion brought us to the same conclusion," Dearington said. "If we're going to have the death penalty here, this was a case it was meant for."
Asked whether he thought he would ever see the executions carried out, Dearington replied, "Now, it's out of our hands."
The Hurdle Of The Pretrial Publicity
Dearington said he questioned whether 12 fair and impartial jurors could be found by attorneys in the wake of the widespread publicity the crime received in local and national media. After the Hayes trial, Petit appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in December 2010.
Defense attorneys cited the pretrial publicity as a reason to move the trials out of New Haven — which is about 20 miles from Cheshire — in their unsuccesful attempts at a change of venue.
"We felt that would be a hurdle we may not be able to overcome," Dearington said.
But after months of jury selection and Connecticut's practice of interviewing prospective jurors individually, panels for each trial were picked.
"We were surprised," Dearington said.
And both juries, Dearington said, appeared to be fair and impartial. He recalled how one juror in a post-verdict interview said that, in deciding Komisarjevsky's fate, the panel initially was split 6-6 and had to work to reach a unanimous verdict on the death penalty. That jury deliberated for nearly 20 hours over five days.
"We were very fortunate to have an intelligent jury that had the courage in a difficult situation to apply the law to the facts of the case and come up with the appropriate verdict," Dearington said.
Walter C. Bansley III, one of Komisarjevsky's attorneys, said after the verdict that they never believed Komisarjevsky would "get a fair shake" in New Haven because they believed the jurors had been prejudiced by pretrial publicity.
Petit's Strength During The Trials
Dearington credited Petit with remaining poised and strong throughout both trials.
"In our wildest imagainations, we can't imagine what it's like to go through what he's had to," Dearington said.
"He's the strongest man I ever met," Sage added.
"We hold him up to be the strongest man, but what he's got going on inside we don't know," Dearington said.
Asked about the Cheshire Police Department's response to the home invasion, Dearington was brief.
"Their response was reasonable under the circumstances," he said.
During the Hayes trial, police Capt. Robert Vignola acknowledged that a half-hour passed between the time police first learned of the break-in and the time they saw Hayes and Komisarjevsky run out of the house, get into the Petits' car and try to escape.
Vignola testified that police had set up a perimeter around the Petit house, in accordance with standard procedure, and if he had known what was going on inside, "I would have been the first one through that door," Vignola said.
Dearington said that during Komisarjevsky's defense during the trial's penalty phase, which lasted for weeks, he was disturbed by the repeated displays of photographs showing Komisarjevsky as a child with his family and at other times in his life.
Komisarjevsky's defense attorneys used the photos while arguing that a series of mitigating factors — including Komisarjevsky's strict religious upbringing, his lack of psychiatric care following sexual abuse and various ways that he has sought to turn his life around — warranted a life sentence rather than death.
Dearington said Petit not only lost his family during the deadly home invasion, but the fire also destroyed his family photographs.
"It must have been difficult for the Petit family to sit through that," Dearington said.
Komisarjevsky's aggressive defense lawyers tested Dearington's usually laid-back demeanor in the courtroom when attorney Jeremiah Donovan called to the judge's attention 27 people in the gallery — the "Petit posse," Donovan called them — wearing Petit Family Foundation pins. Donovan said that jurors possibly could see the heart-shaped pins.
Dearington quickly jumped to his feet in court to object to Donovan's use of the phrase "Petit posse."
The foundation, which supports the education of young people, especially women in the sciences, and those affected by chronic illness and violence, is dedicated to the memory of Petit's wife and daughters.
"It was very disrespectful," Dearington said of Donovan's remark. "I considered it an insult to them."
Asked if he had handled Petit and the Cheshire killings case differently from other cases, Dearington admits he is defensive about that question.
"In my mind, anyone who's lost a family member to violence sees it as a horrific loss," Dearington said. "You have to treat every family the same as they deserve to be treated."
"I'm not trying to be sappy but one of the great joys of the job is a sense of accomplishment that you get when you are dealing with these families and you are giving them every consideration. It's not about statistics, it's about doing what you can for families and the victims."
Dearington cites this "sense of satisfaction" that he gets from "doing everything you can to deal with families" as a reason he is not retiring anytime soon. He said rumors that he planned to retire after the Komisarjevsky trial are untrue.
In fact, Dearington said, he's about to start another murder trial and is working on an old case he handled years ago.
Dearington pointed to the files and boxes of documents covering his desk and the floor of his office.
"Does it look like I'm retiring?"