Defense cites sexual abuse in home invasion trial

AP News
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Posted: Oct 25, 2011 4:16 PM
Defense cites sexual abuse in home invasion trial

A parole burglar facing a possible death sentence for killing a woman and her two daughters in a 2007 home invasion was sexually abused for years as a child but his ultra-religious family failed to get him proper help, his attorney told a jury Tuesday.

Joshua Komisarjevsky's adopted parents increasingly isolated him by home-schooling him and joining a church that had cult-like practices, according to his attorney, Jeremiah Donovan. He said the family failed to get him counseling and medications after he was raped and burned with a cigarette by a 15-year-old foster boy his parents had taken in.

"It's pretty clear by fourth or fifth grade this was a young man who was deeply troubled," Donovan said. "His family kept all this a secret."

The family did not believe in traditional counseling or medication, believing such approaches might be the devil's work, Donovan said. He said the situation was "just the wrong family for this type of kid."

"The evidence is going to show this young man was pretty much doomed from birth," Donovan said.

Komisarjevsky was convicted Oct. 13 of capital felony killing, kidnapping, arson and sexual assault. The same jurors will now decide whether he should get life in prison or the death penalty.

Komisarjevsky's accomplice, 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 in the Cheshire home. The girls were tied to their beds and doused with gasoline before the house was set on fire.

Komisarjevsky was also convicted of sexually assaulting Michaela.

Dr. William Petit, the sole survivor of the attack, was in court briefly Tuesday but left during Donovan's comments.

In his opening statement at the trial's sentencing phase, Donovan told the jury that Komisarjevsky's biological family had a history of mental illness such as bipolar disorder. He was adopted at 2 weeks old.

Donovan described Komisarjevsky's adopted parents as evangelical Christians. His father was controlling, rigid and authoritarian, was prone to tirades and forced the family to pray and cite scriptures.

The family attended church three or four times per week, along with daylong church functions. Komisarjevsky had to read devotionals as early as 5 a.m., memorize them and recite Bible verses as he raked leaves, Donovan said.

He said the jury would see textbooks the family used that offered a narrow view of the world, in which anyone who didn't accept Jesus as they did "is an influence to be avoided." The family's church rejected psychology, he said.

One of the family's churches put members in a mild form of trances, and practiced group humiliation and other beliefs that Donovan said were similar to a cult.

When Komisarjevsky was about 4, his parents took in the foster child who sexually abused him and another foster child in the house for three years, Donovan said.

"He was big, brutal, nasty, mean," Donovan said.

Komisarjevsky's mother called the Department of Children and Families after the other foster child reported the abuse and the teen was removed from the home, Donovan said.

Komisarjevsky began sneaking out of the house in the fourth or fifth grade, feeling safer wandering in the woods at night than at home, his lawyer said.

He was hospitalized at one point and diagnosed with depression, Donovan said. Komisarjevsky was willing at the time to undergo counseling and take medication, but his family sent him to a religious community in New Hampshire, where he was put in a program for troubled youths, Donovan said.

"All he was getting into was a more exaggerated version of his own family," he said.

Komisarjevsky began breaking into houses at night when people were home, his lawyer said, adding it was often "done for pure sport."

"There was absolutely no violence associated with it," Donovan said.

He said Komisarjevsky was working full time and had won custody of his daughter when he got out of prison: "He seemed to be shaking the demons of his youth."

But he noted his client met Hayes at a drug treatment program at a halfway house. Komisarjevsky's defense team has blamed Hayes for the brutal home invasion, but prosecutors say Komisarjevsky was the mastermind of the crime.

Prosecutors did not make an opening statement. They rested their case after calling a court clerk who detailed Komisarjevsky's extensive record of nighttime home burglaries.

Prosecutors say the crimes in Cheshire were especially cruel and heinous. Donovan challenged that argument, but Judge Jon Blue denied his motion, saying the victims suffered a terrifying ordeal for hours before their deaths.