Death, Justice, and the Cheshire Murders

The Petit home was the scene of absolute brutality at the hands of two men.

The Petits were at home when they were subjected to unimaginable brutality and terror at the hands of two men, Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes.

Here’s a tip: if by some chance you find yourself home alone (my 13-month-old son doesn’t really count because he’s no protection at all) on a dark and stormy night, do NOT, under any circumstances, watch the HBO documentary “The Cheshire Murders,” which chronicles the horrific and almost inexplicable 2007 home invasion that killed three members of a beautiful family in Cheshire, Connecticut.

Despite being a bona fide connoisseur of the true-crime documentary genre (surely, having watched every single episode of 48 Hours Mystery and Forensic Files qualifies me as such), and considering myself somewhat embarrassingly jaded about criminals and senseless criminal activity, I can say that the depiction of convicted murderers and all-around thugs Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes haunted and tormented me all night long, and now well into the following morning. I almost had to sleep with the lights on.

As is the fashion these days, this is a documentary with a point of view. Filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner want to tell us that the Cheshire Police royally screwed up. They got the 911 call from the teller at the bank where Steven Hayes forced Jennifer Hawke-Petit to withdraw money about an hour before the house ended up engulfed in flames. They arrived at the Petit home a full half-hour before the fire started, and apparently just sat around in their squad cars scoping the place out and, I don’t know, eating doughnuts and drinking coffee, while Ms. Hawke-Petit was getting raped, strangled, and the girls were getting gasoline poured on them and were subsequently being burned alive.

And yes, the fact that the Cheshire Town Manager went on television shortly after the murders applauding the “courageous” efforts of the “rescue” team will make you want to claw his eyes out. As Hawke-Petit’s sister rightly points out, how much worse could it have gotten? The most heinous possible outcome was borne out. And is it really considered intrepid police work to “get the guys” when they’re right in front of your face, fleeing a burning home?

Needless to say, the Cheshire Police did not make anyone available to interview for this documentary.

The film also makes a pointed comment about the futility of the death penalty. The lone survivor of the attack, William Petit, is depicted as tragically misguided as he advocates for death sentences for Komisarjevsky and Hayes in order to exact a real sense of “justice.” (He’s not the only one — nearly every family member of both the victims and the murderers would like to see them dead.) But reality complicates any illusions of cut-and-dry justice. We learn that Hayes, at least, already wants to die. Automatic appeals will mean the case gets dragged out in perpetuity. And really, isn’t life in near-solitary confinement far worse than an early exit?

Anyway, for me, the most arresting part of this film was the depiction of Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, whom the filmmakers handled thoroughly and clinically — so unlike many other true-crime docs, where we never get to hear from the perpetrators’ families or hear their histories. Which is not to say that the depiction was sympathetic: though both men were sexually abused as children, we are made to understand that each was probably pathologically evil. After meeting in a halfway house while out on parole, Hayes and Komisarjevsky hatched this vicious plan in what was basically the inevitable conclusion to their life of brutality and almost complete amorality.

This was not a “home invasion gone wrong.” It was a mass torture-murder that will stun you with its deliberate viciousness and the hideous intentionality of its two perpetrators. Though both men had only ever been arrested for burglaries previously, it surprised no one, least of all their families, that they were capable of such depraved actions. These men were thugs through and through.

For Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, life was indeed ugly and brutal. The fact that they inflicted their sense of the world on the innocent Petit family, though, is an unimaginable tragedy — the kind that “justice” could probably never even attempt to remedy.

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