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Trial to start in home invasion that shook Conn.

Trial to start in home invasion that shook Conn.

September 18th, 2011 by JOHN CHRISTOFFERSEN, Associated Press in News

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) - A Connecticut man is heading to trial for a harrowing home invasion in an affluent suburb that left a mother and her two daughters dead and so unsettled this liberal-leaning state that the crime played a key role in halting momentum to abolish the death penalty.

Joshua Komisarjevsky, whose trial starts Monday in New Haven Superior Court, faces a possible death sentence if he's convicted. His co-defendant, Steven Hayes, was sentenced to death last year.

The paroled burglars broke into the home in Cheshire in July 2007, beat Dr. William Petit with a baseball bat and tied up his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and the couple's daughters, 11-year-old Michaela and 17-year-old Hayley, authorities say. Hayes forced Hawke-Petit to withdraw money from a bank before he raped and strangled her in the family's home.

The girls, who had pillowcases placed over their heads, died of smoke inhalation after the house was doused with gas and set on fire.

Petit was also tied up but managed to escape to a neighbor's house to get help. Petit, who has not returned to work but has been heavily involved in charities for his family and campaigning for the death penalty and other laws, is expected to testify as he did at Hayes' trial.

Hayes' trial was so gruesome that state officials took the rare step of offering jurors counseling after some complained of nightmares. The jurors were shown autopsy pictures of the victims, photos of the girls' charred beds, rope, ripped clothing and ransacked rooms.

The crime led some residents to buy guns, sparked a special session of the Legislature and a newly defined crime of home invasion. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was elected last year as Connecticut's first anti-death penalty governor in more than 15 years, but the effort to abolish it this legislative session ended in May when two key senators said they would oppose repeal after meeting with Petit.

"This will be a reminder to Connecticut residents of that July day that stunned the state and actually altered the way it looked at itself," said Rich Hanley, graduate journalism director at Quinnipiac University who tracks current events. "Connecticut is a deeply suburban state which thinks of itself as safe from the ills of what many would say is urban America, the violence and that sort of behavior. But this case visited a quiet suburban neighborhood in a way that was unimaginable to the way the state sees itself."

Amid the outrage and sympathy for Petit, Komisarjevsky's attorneys have tried unsuccessfully to get the trial moved out of New Haven, to remove the judge and to keep Petit out of the court until he testifies. They also wanted the judge to prohibit relatives of the victims from wearing pins, buttons or clothing associated with the victims or charities in their memory, calling them the "Petit posse" and arguing it jeopardized Komisarjevsky's right to a fair trial.

Komisarjevsky, 31, and Hayes, 48, offered to plead guilty in exchange for life sentences, but prosecutors rejected the proposal and have pursued the death penalty. If Komisarjevsky is convicted of any of six capital felony charges, the same jury will decide whether he should get the death penalty or life in prison.

Komisarjevsky's attorneys have blamed Hayes for escalating the violence, saying Hayes killed Hawke-Petit and got the gas, poured it and lit the match that set the house on fire. Hayes' attorneys portrayed Komisarjevsky as the mastermind who beat Petit with the bat, sexually molested 11-year-old Michaela and, they claimed, told Hayes he had to rape Hawke-Petit to "square things up."

Prosecutors say both men were equally responsible for the crime.

If Komisarjevsky is convicted, his attorneys are expected to focus on his childhood, when he was sexually abused, to try to persuade the jury to spare him the death penalty. The trial is expected to last up to three months.

Connecticut's death penalty has only been implemented once in the past 51 years, when serial killer Michael Ross was executed in 2005.

But Hanley predicted Connecticut would not abolish the death penalty as long as the Cheshire home invasion was on the minds of residents.

"The nature of the crime went so deep into the psyche of the state," he said.