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Home invasion victim's ordeal goes on

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
Dr. William Petit Jr. with his daughters Michaela and Hayley and his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit.
Dr. William Petit Jr. with his daughters Michaela and Hayley and his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit.
  • Steven Hayes is on trial for the murders of Dr. William Petit Jr.'s wife and two daughters.
  • Greene: "The indignities that Dr. Petit has had to bear seem never to stop."
  • He says a second defendant will have a separate trial, lengthening the ordeal

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "And You Know You Should Be Glad: A True Story of Lifelong Friendship."

(CNN) -- The justice system.

That's the common phrase.

But there are times -- and right now, in Connecticut, is one of them -- when, despite all good intentions, the words can seem rather empty.

The verdict system? That might be closer to the truth. There will eventually be verdicts in the trials of the men accused of killing the family of Dr. William Petit Jr., of Cheshire, Connecticut.

But justice, for Dr. Petit, after what he is enduring now, three years after the murders of his wife and daughters?

No court of law can deliver that.

On July 23, 2007, at about 3 a.m., two men broke into the home where Dr. Petit, who was 50 at the time, lived with his wife, Jennifer-Hawke-Petit, 48, and their two daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11. Jennifer Hawke-Petit had multiple sclerosis.

The men -- identified by police and prosecutors as Steven Hayes, 47, and Joshua Komisarjevsky, 30 -- allegedly beat Dr. Petit with a baseball bat while he slept, bound his wrists and ankles, then took him to the basement of the family's home and tied him to a pole as he drifted in and out of consciousness.

Video: Death penalty for Petit murders?
Video: Jury to get home invasion case

They stand accused of sexually assaulting Jennifer Hawke-Petit and one of the girls, tying them up, setting the house on fire, and fleeing as it burned. They are accused of first forcing Jennifer Hawke-Petit to go to a bank and withdraw $15,000 for them, with the promise that if she did, she and her family would be permitted to live.

Instead, the men are accused of killing her and the two girls. Hayes and Komisarjevsky are each charged with multiple counts of murder, rape, kidnapping and arson.

Both men -- they were caught by police as they drove away from the burning house -- offered to plead guilty in exchange for life sentences instead of the death penalty. But prosecutors believed that the appropriate punishment for Hayes and Komisarjevsky was death. Dr. Petit -- who on that day in 2007 managed, while bleeding profusely from his wounds (he lost as much as seven pints of blood), to free himself from the basement where he was tied up and crawl to a neighbor's house to plead for help for his family -- agreed with the prosecutors.

Which brings us to these weeks in 2010, with Hayes on trial, and Dr. Petit in daily attendance at the proceedings.

How he manages to make it through each day in court is almost beyond comprehending.

In an effort to spare him from having to relive the murder of his family twice, prosecutors had planned to try Hayes and Komisarjevsky together.

But Komisarjevsky's attorney objected. So it was decided that there would be two trials, and that Hayes would be tried first.

As soon as that ruling was delivered, though, Komisarjevsky's attorney asked the court to prohibit Dr. Petit from attending the Hayes trial. He said it would be unfair to Komisarjevsky; he wanted Dr. Petit kept out of the courtroom.

The judge refused; Dr. Petit's family had been murdered, and the judge said he had a right to be there to listen to testimony.

Which he has been doing. Had no one ever broken into his home, he would not find himself surrounded by strangers as the most awful moments of the lives of the three people he loved most are being described. But court is where he has been spending his days. Somehow he finds the strength.

He was in court when a fire official said that an accelerant was poured onto his 11-year-old daughter while she was tied to her bed, and when the fire official spoke about how the blaze that was set had gutted the house.

He was in court when jurors were told that Komisarjevsky's cellphone contained sexually graphic photographs: of a young girl bound to a bed, and of an older female, both, according to the time-coding on the phone, taken during the hours that Hayes and Komisarjevsky were in the Petit home.

He was in court when jurors were shown the haunting images from a video camera inside the bank where his wife had gone to withdraw that $15,000 she thought would save the lives of her children and her husband. He, and the jurors, saw her at the teller's window.

And he was in court as police photos of the bodies of his wife and daughters were shown to members of the jury.

According to those who were present that day, Dr. Petit cried as the jurors examined the photos. These were men and women he did not know, looking, because it was their duty, at pictures of his children and his wife at their most violated and exposed.

It has taken a long time for the case to get to the courtroom. Every right of the defendants has been protected. When, last January, Hayes was found unconscious in his prison cell after overdosing on prescription drugs, jury selection was delayed until he could recover. When his attorneys said in March that conditions in his cell were inhumane, a hearing was held to discuss that. When, after repeated delays, the trial finally commenced, it was suspended anew when one of Hayes's attorneys told the judge that Hayes had become ill, possibly in reaction to the testimony in court.

The indignities that Dr. Petit has had to bear seem never to stop. On the day the fire official was showing jurors the crime-scene photos from 11-year-old Michaela Petit's bed, there was an especially infuriating moment.

Reporter Alaine Griffin of the Hartford Courant, who was in the courtroom, described it this way:

"Some jurors wept.

"And then a cellphone rang.

"The phone -- which must be silenced in court -- sounded 'Joy to the World,' a pop song from the 1970s. The ringing prompted disgusted gasps from the gallery and an irritated Judge Jon C. Blue to throw lawyer Jeremiah Donovan [who is defending Komisarjevsky and was there to observe] out of court.

"'Turn it off next time before you come,' Blue said curtly as Donovan hurried out."

And with that the testimony, and the showing of the ghastly photographs, continued.

The jury in the Hayes case is expected to begin its deliberations on Monday. There will be a verdict, and then Dr. Petit will have to go through this all over again as Komisarjevsky goes to trial. If there are guilty verdicts, appeals will almost certainly follow.

On the day he testified against Hayes, Dr. Petit was asked by reporters how he was able to get through all of this.

He said that he "just tried to do the best I could do for my family."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.