Police Response, Pursuit of Death Penalty Questioned in Haunting, Emotional Documentary “Cheshire Murders”

On the sixth anniversary of the horrific Cheshire home invasion murders, a new HBO documentary on the case as well as a report on police communications that morning are sure to raise new questions about the Cheshire Police Department’s response. It is also likely to reignite the debate over the death penalty in the state.

“Cheshire Murders” aired last night and contained some pointed criticism of the police response from the family of Jennifer Hawke-Petit who, along with her two daughters Hayley and Michaela, was murdered that day, their house set afire. Dr. William Petit, the father and husband, was badly beaten but survived.

Throughout the heart-breaking, two-hour documentary, Hawke-Petit’s sister Cindy Hawke-Renn, and her parents, the Rev. Richard and Marybelle Hawke, expressed the belief the police could have saved the three victims. Evidence was presented that police were on the scene much earlier than previously stated and chose to set up a perimeter for a possible drawn-out hostage situation instead of entering the house.

There is some serious uncertainty about the police department’s actions and suspicion about why to this day it won’t answer requests from the Hawke-Petit family for information on what happened and when. A Hartford Courant report Monday shed some new light on police actions through recorded communications of that morning. It’s troubling.

Every documentary, even those attempting to be objective, has a point of view. In this case, filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner clearly question the wisdom of the state pursuing the death penalty for Joshua Komisarjevsky and Stephen Hayes instead of accepting an offer of pleading guilty to all charges in exchange for a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Dr. Petit was a driving force in seeking death for the pair and in at least temporarily stalling a move to abolish capital punishment in Connecticut. Davis and Heilbroner seemed to be of the opinion that putting the family, friends and indeed the state through a trial wasn’t worth it.

The death penalty was abolished in Connecticut in 2012 but was done so prospectively meaning, at least in theory, death would be an option only going forward and not in cases already decided such as the Cheshire case. However, the documentary concludes with graphics stating as fact the repeal means Joshua Komisarjevsky and Stephen Hayes would never be put to death. The two are on death row pending mandatory appeals.

Several moments in the film stand out. One is the segment in which Stephan Hayes’ two brothers openly advocate for his death, saying “throw the switch now” and enthusiastically hoping their brother might be shot on the way into the courtroom. Most of the others showed Dr. Petit’s and the Hawke family’s strength and courage in the face of unspeakable events.

Segments in the film that tried to explain why the murderers acted as they did that day failed to humanize the two. No recitation of childhood trauma could lessen the magnitude of their evil.