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‘Cheshire Murders’ proves it can happen anywhere

By David Wiegand
San Francisco Chronicle

The Cheshire Murders

Documentary,

9 p.m. Monday, HBO

Conventional wisdom has it that a good documentary will answer questions, but if many fundamental issues are left unresolved in “The Cheshire Murders,” it’s partially because some things are just unknowable.

The film, airing on HBO Monday night, details the horrific 2007 murders of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, Michaela, 11, and Hayley, 17, during an invasion of their home in the idyllic town of Cheshire, Conn.

Dr. William Petit was also attacked, but managed to escape before the two sociopath invaders strangled his wife, raped her post-mortem, raped the younger daughter, poured gasoline on the two girls and set them and the house on fire.

One aspect of the case that should be knowable but isn’t is why the Cheshire police apparently got to the Petit house only a few seconds after they were alerted that the Petit family was being held hostage in their home, yet remained outside for nearly a half hour. In the film by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, police will say only it’s not their policy to detail what they did at a crime scene.

Dispatch logs confirm police presence outside the house, and Petit as well as his sister-in-law, Cindy Renn, and her parents, the Rev. Richard and Maybelle Hawke, believe the police could have saved the victims.

The case became a pivotal issue in the debate over the death penalty in Connecticut, and that’s a big part of the film.

Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky were arrested fleeing the burning Petit house on the morning of July 23, 2007. Two years later, the Connecticut General Assembly voted to repeal the death penalty. The repeal was vetoed by Gov. Jodi Rell, in part because Hayes and Komisarjevsky had yet to be tried. Many in the state, including those who’d previously opposed capital punishment, wanted these two dead. The state eventually repealed capital punishment in 2012.

Ever since the killings, Dr. William Petit has been an advocate for justice for his family. The film doesn’t have to over-emphasize the sad irony that a man whose job is to save lives, to “first, do no harm,” and his wife’s parents – a man of God and his wife – have had to grapple with the dense moral complexities at the heart of the death penalty issue.

Hayes and Komisarjevsky each offered to plead guilty in return for a life sentence, but their offer was rejected by prosecutors who wanted the death penalty.

We also get a great deal of insight into the troubled lives of Hayes and Komisarjevsky, both of whom had been abused as children. To the filmmakers’ credit, the often dismal facts of the men’s lives are not presented in any way as an explanation or apology for their actions in 2007.

“The Cheshire Murders” is a tragic story in every way. We might at first find ourselves thinking about all the other heinous murders that don’t occur in upper-middle-class neighborhoods and wonder why they don’t merit the same kind of treatment. It’s a valid question. At the same time, the reality that it can happen here – “here” being Cheshire, Conn. – should remind us that it can and does happen everywhere.

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