A Connecticut jury that convicted a paroled burglar Thursday of murdering a woman and her two daughters during a gruesome 2007 home invasion will now decide whether he should be put to death for a crime so unsettling it bolstered efforts to keep the death penalty in the state.
Joshua Komisarjevsky (koh-mih-sar-JEV'-skee), whose accomplice is already on death row, was convicted of all 17 charges he faced, including capital felony killing, kidnapping, arson and sexual assault. During the crime in an affluent suburb, family members were tied up, molested, doused in gasoline and left to die in a fire.
The same jury will now decide whether Komnisarjevsky should get life in prison or the death penalty. The penalty phase starts Oct. 24 and could last up to two months. Connecticut's death penalty has only been implemented once in the past 51 years, when serial killer Michael Ross was executed in 2005.
One of Komisarjevsky's attorneys, Walter Bansley III, said they have confidence in the jury system as they shift their attention to sparing their client from the death penalty.
"We have no doubt the jury will view the evidence with compassion and mercy," he said.
Komisarjevsky was sexually abused as a child and suffered multiple concussions and later turned to drugs, according to defense lawyers. That history will be a focus of defense efforts to convince the jury to spare the 31-year-old man's life.
After the verdict was read Thursday, Komidsarjevsky sat back in his chair, rocked slightly back and forth and glanced briefly at the jury. He yawned as he was led out of the courtroom.
The only survivor of the attack, Dr. William Petit, bit his lip and closed his eyes as the verdict was read.
"I thought from the beginning that he was a lying sociopathic personality and probably at this moment he doesn't think he is guilty of anything," he told reporters outside the courthouse.
The New Haven Superior Court jury deliberated for about eight hours over two days before delivering the verdict in a case that unsettled suburban dwellers across the country.
Co-defendant Steven Hayes was sentenced to death last year after he was convicted of raping and strangling Jennifer Hawke-Petit and killing her daughters, 11-year-old Michaela and 17-year-old Hayley, who died of smoke inhalation.
The jury heard evidence that Komisarjevsky spotted Hawke-Petit and her youngest daughter at a grocery store on July 22, 2007, and followed them back to the house and returned later with Hayes, that they beat husband and father, William Petit, with a baseball bat and tied him up and his wife and daughters. The night of terror drew comparisons to Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," which documented the brutal murders of a Kansas farmer and his family.
Hayes forced Hawke-Petit to withdraw money from a bank before he raped and strangled her in the family's Cheshire home, prosecutors said. The girls, who had pillowcases placed over their heads, died after the house was doused with gasoline and set on fire.
During more than two weeks of testimony, prosecutors played an audiotaped confession in which Komisarjevsky spoke matter-of-factly and laughed occasionally. He admitted beating Petit and molesting his younger daughter and taking photos of her, but insisted Hayes wanted to kill the family because he was worried about his DNA at the scene.
Prosecutor Gary Nicholson said in his closing argument that Komisarjevsky was motivated not just by money but by his interest in 11-year-old Michaela. He was convicted of sexually assaulting her.
"Michaela Petit, he was interested in her from the moment he saw her," Nicholson said.
Petit said he always felt the case was partly about sexual predation upon women, and the focus on Michaela made Komisarjevsky's trial particularly difficult.
"I thought a thousand times what would have been different if I had two sons instead of two daughters," he said.
He said he was sickened by claims Komisarjevksy made in his confession to police that he had a kind of connection with Michaela.
"She was incredibly shy around men," Petit said. "To hear a statement that they locked eyes and there was some kind of bond was really nauseating and beyond the pale."
Komisarjevsky said Hayes poured the gas and lit the fire, but test results showed Komisarjevsky had gas on his clothes. They also showed the girl he molested had bleach on her clothes, undermining his claim that only Hayes was worried about DNA.
Jurors saw grim evidence, including charred beds, rope used to tie up the family and autopsy photos. Gas was poured on Hayley's bed and on her sister, according to testimony. Jurors also heard testimony that Hayley likely took up to several minutes to die and it was unclear if burns found on her body occurred before or after she died.
William Petit left the courtroom for some parts of the testimony but took the stand to describe how he fell, crawled and rolled in his frantic escape to a neighbor's house to get help. He and his relatives hugged after the verdict.
More than four years after the crime, Petit said he has "occasional moments of peace" and felt relief at the verdict. But he said the evidence brings the horror all back.
"It's been very difficult," Petit said as his sister, father and other relatives stood by his side. "It's not clear to me that time heals all wounds but you form some form of scars."
Last spring, Petit met with two senators, who were key to a vote against repealing Connecticut's death penalty. The decision doomed the bill in the Senate.
Attorneys for Komisarjevsky said he never intended to kill anyone. They played a part of Komisarjevsky's confession in which he claims he told Hayes, "No one is dying by my hand today," but he couldn't explain why he didn't untie the girls.