New Haven, Conn.
"If your answer to the above question is YES, the court will impose a sentence of death on this count."
It took only a simple "x" on the form, and a signature, for jurors to condemn Steven J. Hayes, convicted October 5 of six counts of capital felonies, to death.
On July 23, 2007, in an all-night home invasion evocative of In Cold Blood, Hayes strangled and raped Jennifer Hawke-Petit while her husband, Dr. William Petit, was bound in the basement. Hayes’s co-defendant, Joshua Komisarjevsky, who will be tried next year, allegedly sexually assaulted the couple’s 11-year-old daughter, who, along with a second daughter, age 17, died of smoke inhalation when the perpetrators set the house on fire, fleeing the burning building directly into the arms of the police. William Petit survived, and attended every day of the trial, projecting calm and dignity even as reporters and jurors winced over the shocking details of that endless night.
In Connecticut, voters have been gripped for the past two months by this trial. On election day, the Twitter feed #Hayes, through which thousands follow the trial minute-by-minute, echoed with sentiments equating a vote for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Malloy, who opposes the death penalty, with insensitivity to Petit, who is an outspoken advocate in favor of it, and his loss. Three weeks before the midterm elections, polling found a "ten-year high in support" for the death penalty among Connecticut voters, with 76 percent in favor of execution in this case.
In the Petit family’s close-knit town of Cheshire, the pro–death penalty state representative Al Adinolfi narrowly beat Elizabeth Esty, the anti–death penalty incumbent, but not before he reportedly wandered around the town accusing high school students of being "Hayes and Komisarjevsky sympathizers" for holding signs supporting his opponent. I spent November 1 in Cheshire speaking to dozens of voters, and only one brought up the death penalty without being asked about it.
In fact, if Adinolfi had checked, and as Governor-elect Malloy surely knows, support for the death penalty was not a top priority for most voters.The fine print reveals that despite overall support ticking up (a hardly overwhelming) two percentage points since 2007, from 63 percent to 65 percent, only 6 percent of voters said the issue was decisive for them. Those calling for the perpetrators’ heads in the Cheshire murders only slightly increased their numbers as well, from 73 percent in 2007 to 76 percent today.
Moreover, when Connecticut voters are asked whether, as a general matter, life without parole would be a preferable option to the death penalty, only 46 percent of Connecticut voters still favor execution (41 percent would choose the life sentence). A nationwide Gallup poll conducted in May 2006 found similar results, with support for the death penalty hovering around two-thirds over the past decade. But as in Connecticut, Gallup found that "support for the death penalty is lower if Americans are offered an explicit alternative—’life imprisonment, with absolutely no possibility of parole,’" with slightly more Americans (48 percent) preferring a life sentence than the death penalty (47 percent).