Supporters of the death penalty like to complain about the exploitative ghoulishness of the media as much as anyone, but whether they admit it or not, they have something in common with the press: Both groups have reason to call attention to crimes that seem to break new ground in depravity, so much so that the people who committed them are virtually impossible to sympathize with, let alone to insist that their lives have some value. In July 2007, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky were able to accommodate them. Hayes, a middle-aged specialist in breaking into parked cars, and the much younger Komisarjevsky stalked Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her 11-year-old daughter Michaela from a supermarket to their home in Cheshire, Connecticut—ranked as the 73rd best place to live by Money Magazine in 2010—and, after waiting until the early morning hours, broke into the house. They bludgeoned the woman’s husband, Dr. William Petit, tied up Micheala and her 17-year-old sister Hayley, then, dissatisfied with the money in the house, took Ms. Hawke-Petit to the bank to withdraw some cash.
Their captive managed to signal what was going on to the bank teller; The Cheshire Murders, directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner (who co-directed the excellent American Experience documentary Stonewall Uprising) opens with surveillance-camera footage of the transaction and audio from the teller’s 911 call. Police were dispatched to the Petits’ house, and the official story is that they arrived just in time to arrest the bad guys as they were fleeing the scene. By that time, Komisarjevsky had sexually assaulted the younger daughter, Hayes had raped and strangled the mother, and the two of them had set fire to the house after soaking both the girls in gasoline. There are lingering rumors that the cops were outside while the girls and maybe Ms. Hawke-Petit were still alive, and may have even heard screams while restraining themselves from trying to enter the house. The sole survivor, Dr. Petit—who managed to make a break for in at the last minute and run to a neighbor’s home, steadfastly supports the police, though he seems to also lend support to some of the rumors when he says that he thought he saw men lurking behind the trees around his house just before it burst into flames.
The Cheshire Murders isn’t a true-crime detective story about piecing together what happened. Aside from the question of whether the police may have mishandled the situation and how, there’s not a lot of disagreement about what happened. (The film ends by noting that no one from the police department was willing to be interviewed.) The murderers’ attempts to mitigate what they did, such as insisting they only set the fire to destroy DNA evidence and didn’t intend for anyone to die in the blaze, don’t pass the laugh test, and wouldn’t do that much to put them in a better light even if they did. Instead, David and Heilbruner use the case for a sociological portrait of a community and how it reacts when all hell breaks loose. As in the wake of 9/11, when it was hard to turn on the TV without hearing that the scene at Ground Zero was “like a movie,” popular culture provides a handy reference point. Jennifer Hawke-Petit’s sister Cindy says that she doubts anything this “evil” has happened “since In Cold Blood,” and adds that many people are referring to the case as, yes. “Cheshire’s 9/11.”
Cindy is eager to know more about how the police may have dropped the ball: “I just want the facts,” she says. “Nobody has told us what really happened.” A local reporter chimes in that “People are clamoring to find out what happened. Just tell us what happened. Then we can deal with it. It’s almost like not knowing is keeping the wound alive.” Eventually, most of the people who’ve been following the case, which has the local media in an iron grip, come to the conclusion that the most important thing is to make sure the killers are executed, even though Connecticut is one of those states that allows juries to sentence people to death but appears loathe to actually execute anyone, and the legislature is discussing the possibility of doing away with this charade by taking the option away entirely.
A talk-radio host is seen telling her audience that she’s “mad as hell” that anyone might be “even talking about, even considering, abolishing the death penalty,” then turns the question over to the person who’s been invited onto the show to disagree with her. When this brave soldier says there’s an interesting new study out, the host, doing her ritual show of dismay that anyone would try to introduce information into an emotion-based discussion, caws, “Study, study, study!” While the guest does not disagree with the idea that repeating whatever your opponent says in a sarcastic voice is a devastating debating technique, she does go right ahead and point out that there’s no evidence that the death penalty has ever deterred anyone from committing a violent crime. The fellow who’s been invited onto the show to agree with the host scoffs at this. If someone is the sort who would commit a violent crime, you kill them, and then they damn sure won’t do it again; how are they not, therefore, deterred?
The Cheshire Murders doesn’t even try to suggest that Hayes and Komisarjevsky would be any great loss to the world, though in tracking their path to death row, it does suggest some of the more interesting ways a life can go wrong, and the degree to which a person can seem to be doomed from birth. (The troubled Komisarjevsky could have used some therapy and anti-psychotic medication, but grew up in a homeschooled, religious environment that saw such symptoms of emotional problems and mental illness as signs that the devil was nearby. An old friend explains that “exorcism” was “a regular part of our lives when it came to dealing with anxiety.”) The film isn’t propagandistic, but, like the best-known documentary about a death penalty case, The Thin Blue Line, it does show how introducing the death penalty into a legal case can have unintended and even deranging effects on the legal process.
Some feel the long, drawn-out, and expensive trial process was an abuse of the community and the victims’ survivors that postponed closure by keeping the story alive and in the papers. No one but Hayes and Komisarjevsky can be blamed for the deaths of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her children, but they can share the blame for the trial with the prosecutors, who refused to take their offer to plead guilty in exchange for sentences of life imprisonment without parole—the sentences they’ve since wound up with by default, since the state of Connecticut did indeed vote to abolish the death penalty. One of the lawyers involved says that, by forcing everyone to go through with the trial when they instead had the chance to “just throw these guys in jail and throw away the key,” the prosecutors “coarsened the social fabric of Connecticut.”
Whether you agree with him may depend on your reaction to the woman who was given TV time to suggest that the killers should be hung by their genitalia until dead. It’s a great relief to hear Jennifer Hawke-Petit’s sister, at the end, saying that because she wanted justice for her sister, and because she believes in the American justice system, she’s grateful there are defense attorneys willing to take cases as thankless as this one. Making a documentary about a case as depressing and frustrating as this one is no picnic either. The filmmakers have created a lucid and exceptionally thoughtful and thought-provoking film about senseless horrors, and about the raw emotions that often seem like a more natural and honest response to them than any kind of thought at all.