Jury selection for the second Cheshire home invasion trial finally concluded Tuesday after the judge, defense lawyers and prosecutors interviewed more than 1,300 jury panelists.
News reports said Judge Jon C. Blue was elated at the selection of the 21st juror, declaring it "an excellent jury" for the extremely high-profile death penalty case.
But defense lawyers for the defendant, Joshua Komisarjevsky, clearly disagreed.
Numerous times they have argued that their client cannot get a fair trial in the New Haven Judicial District, where they say people in the jury pool overwhelmingly have been exposed to sensational news coverage about the case and the great majority of them have already made up their minds that Komisarjevsky is guilty.
At least four times during jury selection, prospective jurors assured the court during voir dire questioning that they could decide the case based on the evidence during the trial, then later revealed they were, in fact, convinced of Komisarjevsky’s guilt all along.
Two of those jurors were actually selected for the jury, but returned to ask to be excused for cause, which Judge Blue did. Both also revealed they had talked about the case with acquaintances after being picked as jurors, although Judge Blue instructed them not to discuss it with anyone.
The other two were excused when the defense used peremptory challenges after unsuccessfully asking the judge to excuse them for cause. One of those jury panelists yelled "murderer" at Komisarjevsky as she left the courtroom, and the other called him a murderer on her Facebook page later in the day.
In legal motions, Komisarjevsky’s court-appointed defense lawyers have argued they feel it is likely that others that were picked for the jury also concealed their prejudice against the defendant in order to get on the jury and make sure he gets the death penalty.
Komisarjevsky, 30, faces execution by lethal injection for the murders of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11. His co-defendant, Steven Hayes, 47, was convicted last fall and is on death row.
Komisarjevsky’s trial is scheduled to begin on Sept. 19 in New Haven Superior Court. If he is found guilty, the jury would then decide to sentence him to death based on the aggravating factors of the case, or to life without possibility of release based on mitigating factors, such as psychological problems or a history of abuse as a child.
The case has attracted more media attention than any other criminal case in Connecticut history because of the aggravating factors.
According to testimony during the Hayes trial, the two men forced their way into the family’s home early in the morning on July 23, 2007, beat Dr. William Petit with a baseball bat and tied him with plastic cable ties in the basement.
Then they tied the girls to their beds and forced Hawke-Petit to withdraw $15,000 from a family bank account. While Hayes accompanied her to the bank, Komisarjevsky allegedly sexually assaulted 11-year-old Michaela in her bedroom.
When Hayes returned with Hawke-Petit, he raped and strangled her. Then they set fire to the house as they tried to escape, but were quickly captured by police, who had been alerted by bank officials and had surrounded the Petit house.
Dr. Petit managed to escape the house just before the fire. He and other family members have attended every Komisarjevsky jury selection session. He also campaigned at the Legislature against abolishing the death penalty, even though it wouldn’t have applied to Komisarjevsky. He argued that if it passed it might make the jury more inclined to give Komisarjevsky a life sentence instead of the death penalty.
That led to an unusual episode on May 11 when two death penalty opponents, state Senators Edith Prague, D-Columbia, and Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, switched sides after meeting with Petit.
Prague made headlines when she told a reporter that Komisarjevsky should be publicly hanged by his genitals without a trial.
Komisarjevsky’s defense lawyers, Jeremiah Donovan, Walter Bansley III and Todd Bussert, made a motion to delay jury selection for three months because Prague’s comment had created so much prejudicial media coverage during jury selection. But Judge Blue denied their motion.
Judge Blue denied other defense motions as well, including one to move the trial to another part of the state, to prohibit reporters from sending reports by Twitter and other Internet communications technology from the courtroom while proceedings were underway, and to obtain more peremptory challenges after the defense used up all of theirs before jury selection ended.
He also denied a defense motion to seal the witness lists for the case, which were sought by the Hartford Courant. The Courant argued that the lists are court documents and should be accessible to the public.
The defense countered that releasing them would jeopardize Komisarjevsky’s right to a fair trial, because his witnesses would be targets of threats and intimidation, just as was at least one defense witness during the Hayes trial.
The witness lists have remained sealed, however, since Judge Blue’s ruling in March while the defense appealed the matter. It is currently before the Connecticut Supreme Court, which might make a ruling at any time.
This month, the defense asked that the gag order already in effect for defense attorneys, prosecutors and the Petit family be extended to trial witnesses and employees of the Department of Correction.
Some defense motions have accused Judge Blue of being prejudiced against the defendant. One motion stated the defense’s opinion that by allowing reporters to use Twitter in the courtroom and siding with the Courant on the release of the witness lists, Judge Blue was trying to ingratiate himself with the news media.
In its motion asking for more peremptory challenges, the defense mentioned an offhanded remark by Judge Blue that the pace of jury selection would speed up once the defense ran out of peremptory challenges.