“I know what people are going to ask,” Steven Hayes told me, “because I have those same questions.”
When Connecticut’s Supreme Court ruled on August 13 that the state could no longer impose the death penalty, calling it unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment, “no longer serv[ing] any legitimate penological purpose,” I let out a deep breath I didn’t know I’d been holding.
The release to the general prison population of the last 11 men awaiting death by lethal injection in Connecticut meant more to me than just the final end in my home state of an ineffectual and often unfairly imposed form of criminal justice and, to my eyes, a debasing way for civil society to punish even its worst offenders. The court also put an end to the absurdity of keeping the last 11 men on Death Row since the State General Assembly had ended capital punishment for all except those condemned to death before April 2012.
The fate of one of those condemned men has never been far from my mind for the past 2½ years. In December 2012 and then in April 2013, I met for a total of six hours with Steven Hayes to talk about one horrible night—July 23, 2007—in Cheshire, Connecticut, not far from my home in New Haven. That was the night he destroyed a family in what would become one of the most sensational crimes in the state’s history, a crime that made Hayes one of the nation’s most reviled criminals.
It was a sunny and unseasonably pleasant early winter day when I first met with Hayes in a small, concrete room directly off Death Row somewhere deep within the Northern Correctional Institute. The squat supermax prison bunker sits amid fields and farms in Somers, a rural town that harbors a massive complex of prisons near the Massachusetts border. Like virtually everyone in Connecticut and beyond, I knew him only as the perpetrator of a horrifically brutal crime. I had plenty of reason to expect I was going to talk to a monster.
The horrifying events that took place in the Cheshire home of Dr. William Petit Jr., his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and their two daughters, through the night and into the morning of July 23, 2007, aren’t in dispute. Hayes, 44 years old at the time, and his accomplice, Joshua Komisarjevsky, then 26, broke into the family’s house where the younger man had earlier in the day targeted the Petits as likely to have money to steal. Komisarjevsky bludgeoned Dr. Petit senseless with a bat as he slept on a daybed. Finding little money, Hayes took Hawke-Petit, 48, to a bank, where she withdrew $15,000 from a family account.
Returning to the Petit house, Hayes discovered Komisarjevsky had raped the Petits’ younger daughter, Michaela, age 11, while he was out. Urged on by Komisarjevsky, Hayes then raped Hawke-Petit. During the attack on Hawke-Petit, Komisarjevsky discovered Dr. Petit had fled. Fearing the Petit women would talk, Hayes panicked and fatally strangled Hawke-Petit. After that the men doused the house and the girls, who were tied to their beds, with gasoline originally intended for their getaway vehicle. Then they set the place on fire. The police had been alerted by the bank teller. They stopped the two men as they sought to drive away and arrested them, but too late to stop the flames from consuming the house. The Petit women’s bodies were burned beyond recognition.
The brutal violence in the leafy, well-heeled New Haven suburb, which The New York Times called “one of the most savage crimes in the state in decades,” attracted worldwide press coverage. Books were written; HBO ran a documentary about the Cheshire case. Many compared it to the notorious In Cold Blood murders of nearly half a century earlier. In a state that had executed only one condemned man in more than 50 years, Hayes was sentenced to death in December 2010; Komisarjevsky received the death penalty after his trial the following year. They were the last two men condemned to death in the state’s courts.
Dr. Petit survived the attack and spoke to the press regularly outside the New Haven courthouse during the trials. And political observers say he directly influenced the debate over capital punishment in the state legislature. Most of the state’s legislators favored an end to capital punishment until Petit personally lobbied the General Assembly. A compromise ended future capital cases but left the two men’s death sentences in place, along with those of nine other men waiting to die on Death Row. Although he would likely have had many years, even decades of appeals to come, at the time I met with Hayes, he had every expectation that he would be among the last to die “by state,” as he told me.
Before that first meeting with me, Hayes had not testified or permitted testimony by family or friends on his behalf during his trial. He did not allow submission of potentially mitigating evidence during the punishment phase. He had never spoken publicly about any of the events leading up to that night in Cheshire or about what happened in the Petit home.
Then, after two years on Death Row, Hayes decided he wanted to talk. He intended to write his life story. I am friends with Thomas Ullmann, the New Haven region’s justly renowned chief public defender who represented Hayes during his trial. He arranged for me to meet with Hayes to listen to him and to investigate whether his story might prove publishable.
I have taught a course for prisoners before, some of whom were in for murders. Nonetheless, I felt unnerved coming face to face with a convict I thought of as the worst of the worst. I was shocked by the man the guards brought in to see me.
In the mugshot that accompanied nearly every news report concerning the murders and the trial, Hayes appeared thick necked, with a shaved head, a jowly, round face, and a glowering look. The older, bigger, and more menacing looking of the two killers, he was widely reported to be the leader of the night’s violence. Also the first to go on trial, he became the face of what People magazine called “Every Family’s Nightmare.” Dr. Petit told Oprah Winfrey during a nationally televised interview that he could not forgive the pair he called “ultimate evil … the essence of evil.”
The man I met looked nothing like that. His head was still shaved but at 49, Hayes looked shrunken, brittle, and small within a starched yellow prison jumpsuit. He had lost more than 70 pounds, for which he blamed allergies to the prison food. His paper-white skin hung from his bones so that a dragon tattoo encircled by the handcuffs on his right forearm seemed to writhe as he reached out to shake my hand. He carried a cardboard box crammed with folders filled with notes he had made.
Before he left us alone, the guard chained Hayes’s ankles to the floor at the desk where we sat opposite each other. His cuffed hands moved in parallel each time he picked out a folder from the box, pushed his reading glasses up on his nose, or gestured.
At first he was slow to talk and rarely looked me in the eye. But gradually he warmed and the words spilled out, mostly with barely a question or comment on my part. At times he rambled, perhaps the result of the medications he was taking for anxiety and other psychiatric disorders or possibly from lack of sleep. He said with lights on around the clock in his cell, ill from his food allergies, and noise a constant, he rarely slept.
Hayes told me he started taking drugs as a young teen. “I used drugs to kill pain,” he said. He did not tell me what had happened but said he had suffered some forms of abuse as a child and had had no contact with his father since early childhood. He dropped out of high school. His first arrest came at age 16. “I came out [of detention] and enjoyed it. I partied.” He wasn’t very good at staying out. After that he was arrested 25 more times before his last arrest outside the burning Petit house. Until his final arrest, none of his crimes involved any violence.
But he could not stay off drugs. He said he spent around $100,000 on crack from 2001 to 2003 alone. Then he was arrested again for another car break-in. “I didn’t hit bottom until 2003,” he told me. “Some [addicts] wake up the first morning [after taking drugs] and realize; some like me take 30 years; some die.”
During his penultimate incarceration, he finally got clean. He went to prison addiction recovery meetings where he talked about his life as an addict to the other inmates. “My story reached people,” he said with evident pride. “In prison people came just to see me talk. The meetings were at capacity every time I spoke.” While in jail, he even trained to be an addiction services peer mentor, with designs to help other addicts break free of drugs.
He read recovery literature, but told me at our second meeting about his experience reading A Million Little Pieces, the powerful 2003 best-selling memoir of a narcotics addict that proved to have been heavily fictionalized. He “loved” the book when he first read it, but found the revelation that author James Frey lied throughout “so devastating.” The fact that something so moving and seemingly true was riddled with lies had “shattered” him. He would not do that to other recovering addicts, he insisted: “People base their lives and their recovery on your story. People can die. Look at Cheshire.”
Hayes refused to permit his legal team to mount an adequate defense, even “sabotaged” his cause, he said, “because I didn’t think people would believe it at trial, and I didn’t want my story twisted into what it was not.”
During his trial, he nearly succeeded in killing himself with a massive overdose of the antipsychotic thorazine. “I wanted to die,” he said.
The idea of publishing his life story came to him as a result of the intense interest his case was still eliciting even two years after his sentencing. He said that letters arrived “from all over the world. Most want to know, are you the monster they said you are? Most want an answer to the question, Why? Why did it happen?” He had something to say before—and an audience while at recovery meetings. Now, he felt that he had a much more powerful story to tell but no audience. He hoped his story in book form might reach an audience.
“People may not listen to me, but even if one person does, it’ll save his life. It’s a way to turn this negative into a positive. I need to leave behind me a better legacy than I have. That way when I do die, it’s karma.” At times his red eyes appeared to well up.
He described to me how he had carried out what amounted to his own brand of a recovery meeting, recounting to himself his life story alone in his tiny Death Row cell. He stood virtually nonstop, he said, and spoke to an empty chair. Why the chair? “Addicts,” he explained, “we don’t relate to stories about how it’s going to get better. We do relate to the horror stories. We leave an empty chair [at Narcotics Anonymous meetings] for the ones who died. Everybody looks at the chair and thinks, ‘That will happen to me.’ I don’t think anybody has a more devastating story than me.”
He walked and spoke to the chair. “It took 29 hours,” he said, to recount his entire life. He wrote notes and even drew a map of his childhood neighborhood. “I realized I can’t leave nothing out. Each part leads to the next.”
In winter 2007 Hayes was on parole after serving three years of his five-year sentence. In getting off drugs while in prison, he said, “I fought for recovery just as hard as I fought for drugs.” After parole he went to a Hartford halfway house where he shared a room with Komisarjevsky. The two became friends.
“I got Josh involved in meetings…. I believe his motivations [in attending meetings] were sincere at that point. Mine were.”
That spring, both men, seemingly clean, won release from the halfway house. Hayes went to live in his mother’s small place in Winsted in northwestern Connecticut. Komisarjevsky moved back to the house where he grew up in Cheshire. Both men continued to attend recovery meetings in Hartford. Hayes had a landscaping job and ushered at a Hartford music theater. But, he said, “You need money for a car, insurance, security deposit for an apartment, clothes, phone. A $400 [weekly] paycheck doesn’t go far.” His mother’s car broke down, and he didn’t have enough to repair it. He lost his jobs. He went looking for help. “Everyplace … no, no, no.” He said, “I was giving up.”
He insisted, “If I went out with a firm foundation … Cheshire never would have happened.” Instead, “I started back on my old ways.” He blew his last $700 on crack—smoking three times over a month, he claimed.
Komisarjevsky also had money troubles and, after following Hawke-Petit home one day, called Hayes to join him in breaking into the Petit house. “We had two different agendas,” insisted Hayes. “I needed money. He had other ideas.”
Hayes told me about that night inside the Petit house: “Things were spinning out of control. I was out of my element.” He claimed to have tried to stop things from escalating, but the monster was loosed.
Hayes looked directly at me through his puffy eyes. “Cheshire,” he said, “is the end result of addiction. The monster isn’t Steven Hayes. The monster is the addiction. I was back on drugs only 30 days, and I did one of the worse crimes, and now I’m living in hell.”
While in the Death Row day room, visible through the window where we sat, Hayes said he and Komisarjevsky could see and talk to each other. “I don’t harbor him any ill will,” he claimed. At the arrest interrogation, Hayes said, “he gave a statement putting the crime on me … He threw me under the bus. Since I found out what he was saying, we don’t talk anymore.”
After our second meeting in April 2013, the Connecticut Department of Corrections determined that because I was not officially a member of Hayes’s appeals team, I had no standing to meet with him face-to-face. And he was unwilling to talk to me by intercom through the visitor’s booth glass wall, certain our conversation would be recorded. I haven’t seen him since, though Ullmann has and tells me about him from time to time.
Hayes the addict had never been able to live at peace in the human community. On that terrible night eight years ago in Cheshire, he forfeited any chance that he might live on as just another among the millions of recovering addicts. He insisted to me, “People involved in drugs and alcohol know they’re no different from me.” Spending those hours with him brought home to me that even while waiting for his final moments to arrive—until the court returned him to the general prison population last month—Hayes never lost his humanity.
As he intended his dreamed-of book would do for recovering addicts, Hayes’s story has haunted me now for nearly three years since we last met. I’ve kept my 20 pages of notes from our meetings in a folder on my desk, trying to figure out what message they carried, not just his life story but about the nature of a crime that Dr. Petit rightly termed the “ultimate evil.” Hayes the man and Hayes the addicted monster never managed to coexist. With the monster now permanently contained, perhaps one day Hayes will reconcile himself to the terrible crimes he committed.
During our last meeting, he said to me, “What happened to that family breaks my heart.” That’s not close to adequate payment for what Hayes did to the Petits that awful night in Cheshire, but with the rest of his life ahead of him in prison, it is the only true payment that matters now.