Five Years After the Petit Murders
By Dave Baker
When TIME magazine names a Person of the Year, candidates are chosen based on their level of influence and contribution, negative or positive. For a time in Connecticut, two convicted murders ranked among the most influential. On the night of July 23, 2007, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky committed sexual assault, murder and arson in a home invasion evocative of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Their victim was the Petit family: Dr. William Petit, his wife Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and their daughters Hayley and Michaela, ages 17 and 11. Testimonies from Hayes and Komisarjevsky say what began as a robbery spiraled out of control. Jennifer Hawke-Petit was raped and strangled to death by Hayes, Hayley and Michaela died from smoke inhalation after their robbers lit the house on fire, leaving Dr. Petit, bludgeoned with a baseball bat, bound and thrown in the basement, the only survivor of a crime that rocked the quiet suburb of Cheshire, Connecticut.
The most widely publicized crime in the state’s history, the Cheshire Home Invasion ignited a political maelstrom over an issue that typically exists as an afterthought or moral question in Connecticut legislatures, courts, and barrooms: the death penalty. A 2010 poll revealed overwhelming support around the state for the death penalty, with 76 percent of voters declaring themselves in favor of using execution in the case of Hayes and Komisarjevsky. That debate intensified when historic legislation to abolish the death penalty was introduced, a vote that became a pivotal moment in the political careers of current US congressional candidates Elizabeth Esty and Andrew Roraback.
Conviction and hard work are words often attached to Elizabeth Esty’s character. These traits got her through the Ivy League, Harvard undergraduate and Yale Law School. They propelled her to success in local politics, two terms on the Cheshire Town Council and one as a state representative for the 103rd District. But in 2009, her convictions ultimately cost her a seat in the state House of Representatives when she voted in favor of Connecticut becoming the 17th state to repeal the death penalty.
A Cheshire resident, the Democratic Esty won her seat from veteran representative Al Adinolfi in 2008. Though three years removed from the heinous events of that July night, the Petit killings remained a hot issue in Connecticut politics. Both Hayes’ and Komisarjevsky’s trials began in an election year for the state House and Adinolfi, vying for a reelection bid, became an outspoken advocate for the death penalty. A Cheshire resident himself, Adinolfi launched an unrelenting campaign against the incumbent Esty’s anti-death penalty stance; appealing to a voter base clamoring for blood. Many voters were displeased with Esty’s decision to consciously ignore the majority opinion in her district, which also happened to be ground zero for the Petit murders. Despite being a relative non-issue to voters in years past, Adinolfi’s staunch support for capital punishment earned him his old seat in the House, narrowly winning the election 4,857 votes to 4,717.
Esty is now locked in a race with Republican state Senator Andrew Roraback to represent Connecticut’s Fifth Congressional District. The two candidates, albeit in different capacities, served during the same legislative session and voted similarly on several issues, notably, to repeal the death penalty. Roraback voted in favor of a 2009 bill to end the use of capital punishment, which then Governor M. Jodi Rell ultimately vetoed. During her term, Rell oversaw the first execution in New England since 1960 when serial killer Michael Ross was put to death in May of 2005. Rell was also responsible for enacting a series of stringent parole policies and more severe sentencing for individuals convicted of home invasion.
The bill Governor Dan Malloy signed into law in April of 2012 abolishing capital punishment came with a stipulation: those already on death row would serve out their sentences. This included the Connecticut Department of Correction’s most famous inmates, Steven Hays and Joshua Komisarjevsky. The retroactive nature of the law didn’t sit well with Andrew Roraback. An initial supporter of the bill, the long-time death penalty opponent said in an interview with National Public Radio that to execute the 11 men currently on death row felt “disingenuous.” “First of all,” Roraback said, “there’s no way that the courts would allow those men to be executed after Connecticut banned the death penalty going forward. It’s wrong to say we are claiming the “moral high ground” on the death penalty by calling for the government to kill 11 people.” Roraback directly cited the Cheshire Home Invasion as the influence behind that exception, drawing very public criticism from Dr. Petit.
All that remains of Connecticut’s much-disputed decision to ban the death penalty is the fallout and aftermath. Governor Malloy implored residents to view the new law as a necessary measure, not a victory for any particular side of the aisle. “Although it is an historic moment – Connecticut joins 16 other states and the rest of the industrialized world by taking this action – it is a moment for sober reflection, not celebration,” Malloy said in an official press release days after signing the bill into law. For Esty, her firm stance against capital punishment cost her a seat in the state House, but ultimately cemented her reputation as someone steadfast in her beliefs. A seasoned politician, Roraback recovered from early flak and won the Republican nomination in a close four-way race with Justin Bernier, Mark Greenberg and Lisa Wilson-Foley.
With November 2nd approaching, both candidates are in the throes of campaign season. Having spent a combined $1.6 million to win their respective primaries, getting funding to sustain their campaigns becomes priority. The Democrat from Cheshire has received donations from high profile constituents; such as ESPN anchor Chris Berman, an unnamed executive from Facebook, and numerous attorneys and professors from Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. Esty has also contributed over $500,000 in personal donations. The Torrington-born Republican hasn’t reported any gaudy donations and keeps his campaign going through funding from Connecticut residents. Early polls indicate Esty is a slight favorite, but Election Day is a long way off.
Elizabeth Esty and Andrew Roraback have come to crucial points in their political careers. They’ve arrived by different paths, paths shaped and impacted by that tragic night in July 2007. With the Cheshire Home Invasion prompting Connecticut policy makers to face difficult questions, Esty and Roraback experienced firsthand the consequences of politics clashing with principles. Now, the progressive Democrat squares off against the self-described “New England Republican” – fiscally conservative, but socially liberal – with a US congressional seat on the line. Whatever the outcome, the fact remains that during a watershed moment in Connecticut history, these candidates stood on common ground.