Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Another Twist in a Connecticut Triple-Murder Case

Steven J. Hayes is charged with killing a mother and her two daughters in the town of Cheshire, Conn., in 2007. He faces the death penalty. And on Tuesday, he told a courtroom here that he would fight the charges.

That a man facing death is pleading not guilty might not qualify as news, except for the fact that Mr. Hayes threw pretrial proceedings into disarray last week by saying he actually wanted to plead guilty. His own lawyers fought against it, and went to court to stop him, calling such a plea “suicide by state.”

Mr. Hayes’s changing desires show that this gruesome murder case that has transfixed Connecticut is following a relatively typical, topsy-turvy course for death penalty battles. Death penalty cases can suddenly reverse themselves — as Mr. Hayes’s did when his lawyers went to court to fight against his wishes.

It was a few minutes after 10 a.m. on Tuesday when Mr. Hayes, a chain restricting his ankles, shuffled into the fourth-floor courtroom where he is headed to trial for the home-invasion killings of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two girls. Her husband survived the nighttime attack, which ended in a fire and drew national notice.

Mr. Hayes’s lawyer Thomas J. Ullmann promptly announced that his client, who tried to commit suicide in jail in late January, had changed his mind about pleading guilty. Now, the lawyer said, Mr. Hayes will keep working with his lawyers during jury selection. The trial is scheduled to begin in the fall. Six jurors have so far been selected.

The judge, Jon C. Blue of State Superior Court, crisply questioned Mr. Hayes. Did he really want to reverse his stance of last week? Was he now satisfied with the lawyers whose advice he was rejecting last week?

“Yes,” Mr. Hayes mumbled. More than one person in the crowded courtroom later mentioned that there had been a long pause before that muffled response, suggesting that the surprising turnarounds may not yet be finished in the long road of this capital case.

In the law, there is a saying that “death is different.” It is meant to suggest that capital cases are unique; that every “i” must be dotted before the courts will sign a death penalty order.

But defense lawyers experienced in capital cases say it is also true that death-penalty cases themselves are different. They are typically filled with confounding legal tangles, erratic behavior by defendants and battles between lawyers and their own clients.

“It is difficult. You have someone’s life in your hands,” said John Holdridge, a veteran of the field who has worked with both of Mr. Hayes’s lawyers.

Mr. Hayes’s lawyers filed a legal motion on Monday that was something of a brief against their client’s wishes. They argued that even if he changed his mind yet again he should not be permitted to plead guilty.

They noted that a bedrock principle of law provides that clients, not their lawyers, decide whether to plead guilty or not guilty. But they argued that that was not necessarily true in death-penalty cases. In Connecticut, as in many states, a guilty plea leads to a separate hearing — the penalty phase — to determine if the guilty person is put to death. As a result, the lawyers said, a guilty plea “falls within the exclusive authority of the defendant’s attorneys” after consultation with the defendant.

Some legal experts and other death penalty lawyers said this was a creative claim. They noted that nonlawyers — and death penalty defendants — sometimes think that pleading guilty will bring mercy in the penalty phase of a capital case.

That is not always so. A defendant fighting even a hopeless case, some lawyers say, gives jurors an opportunity to express their outrage at a crime in finding guilt, while allowing them room later for compassion in a sentence that spares the defendant’s life.

“Most lawyers who really think through this stuff would not want their client to plead guilty,” said Miriam Gohara, a lawyer at the Federal Capital Habeas Project in New Haven.

The filing by Mr. Hayes’s lawyers, Mr. Ullmann and Patrick J. Culligan, included a series of such “death is different” arguments. In general in American law, clients’ confidences are kept by their lawyers. But Mr. Ullmann and Mr. Culligan asserted that the possibility of execution could change that.

To save their client from the consequences of a guilty plea, they suggested, they might be ethically required to tell the court some of his secrets. “Counsel may feel obligated,” they wrote, “to violate the attorney-client privilege.”

But perhaps the theme of their filing was the upside-down central struggle that takes place away from the courtroom. The filing noted that state officials had taken extraordinary measures, like constant observation and the administering of high doses of medication, to keep Mr. Hayes from committing suicide so that a jury could decide whether he should be executed.

By William Glaberson


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