Witness Harassed After Defense Calls Her To Testify In Steven Hayes Case

Christiane Gehami has been the recipient of harassing calls and online threats since testifying in the Steven Hayes trial. (CLOE POISSON)

The trouble started shortly after West Hartford restaurateur Christiane Gehami left the witness stand.

Internet posts at the end of news stories about her testimony in the trial of triple-murderer Steven Hayes urged a boycott of Gehami's restaurant. There were harassing telephone calls. A threatening e-mail that she received was so frightening, she said, that she called police.

Gehami had an unenviable role in Hayes' trial: testifying for the defense of a man facing the death penalty for one of the state's most brutal crimes in recent history. The highly publicized home-invasion killings of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Hayley and Michaela Petit, have stirred widespread outrage and reignited the debate about capital punishment in Connecticut.

A court-ordered subpoena forced Gehami to the witness stand Oct. 18, the first day of the penalty phase in Hayes' trial. Testimony will resume this morning at Superior Court in New Haven.

"I wondered how they were going to use me to try to show a shred of humanity in this monster to keep him from the death penalty when I didn't even want to be there in the first place," said Gehami, 54.

A defendant in a criminal case has a constitutional right to subpoena witnesses. And although there are many reasons that a prospective witness may contest a subpoena, not wanting to help a particular defendant is not one of them.

M.H. Reese Norris, a veteran defense attorney, said he appreciates Gehami's predicament. "I think it would be tough to be a defense witness in a case with such strong public sentiment and in a case involving a crime that is so monstrous," Norris said.

Norris said that people unfamiliar with the legal system might not realize that just because someone is subpoenaed, it does not mean that person believes the defendant should be spared the death penalty.

"I feel bad for her," Norris said. "But the defense has a right to subpoena witnesses. She had to testify or face contempt-of-court charges. She had no choice."

'Do I Have To?'

Gehami said she would not have testified voluntarily. Although Gehami employed Hayes for a brief period in 2006, she said she did not think the little she had to say about him could sway jurors to keep Hayes off death row.

"I kept thinking, I knew him four years ago for 31 days. How desperate were they to find someone to testify if they had to use someone who knew him for 31 days? Is that the best they can do?" Gehami said.

Gehami said that officials with the public defender's office interviewed her shortly after the July 23, 2007, killings. She would not get another visit until Oct. 12. That day, one of Hayes' lawyers and an inspector told her they wanted her to testify.

At first, Gehami said, she was confused. She knew that a Superior Court jury had convicted Hayes on Oct. 5 of 16 counts connected to the killings. Wasn't the evidence in Hayes' case finished?

She said the public defender officials explained that six of the charges were crimes punishable by death, and before jurors would decide whether Hayes would either get the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of release, more evidence was needed from witnesses.

"I asked, 'Do I have to?' " Gehami said. "They said, 'Yes.' "

To ensure that she showed up, a subpoena arrived at her restaurant, Arugula, on Oct. 14, she said.

She worried about what a connection to Hayes' case would mean for her and her restaurant, a bistro that she has owned for 14 years in West Hartford Center. She said officials told her they would not refer to the restaurant by name during questioning.

The day before she would testify, Gehami said, she became even more anxious about her role for the defense when she read a news story that said Hayes' family members probably would not testify on his behalf in an attempt to save him from execution.