Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Hayes' Not Guilty Plea, His Guilty Plea, And his Not Guilty Plea

Early in June, 2009, the state legislature passed a bill abolishing the death penalty that was vetoed by Governor Jodi Rell, who said she thought the present law was just in the cases in which it had been applied in Connecticut.

Although a number of convicted killers are awaiting punishment on death row -- among them Daniel Webb, sentenced to death in 1991 for having brutally raped and murdered a bank executive in a park in Hartford -- the state has executed only two people within living memory: Ross and Joseph “Mad Dog” Taborsky in 1960, who has the distinction of being the only convict in Connecticut sent to death row twice for different crimes. Webb recently beat a guard severely enough to require medical attention.

The bill abolishing the death penalty was passed after two convicted criminals released from prison, Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes, broke into a home in Cheshire, beat Dr. William Petit unconscious with a baseball bat, raped his wife and one of his daughters, tied their victims to a bed and incinerated the house, murdering everyone in the family but Dr. Petit, who survived the assault and has testified before the legislature that the death penalty should, in his view, be retained.

At the beginning of April, Hayes surprised everyone, including his two public defenders, when he blurted out in court that he wished to plead guilty to the charges against him. This left public defenders Patrick Culligan and Tomas Ullman, both ardently opposed to the death penalty, between a rock and a hard place. They had been prepared to defend Hayes tooth and nail, and now they were flummoxed.

The legal rule book is clear on the point that lawyers must respect decisions made by defendants who are competent or not suffering from diminished capacity. Hayes’ pleading came at an awkward time, just before it had been determined by a team of experts he was competent to stand trial. On the basis of this finding, Hayes’ attorneys had waived a competency hearing. Judged competent, Hayes then proceeded to plead guilty.

Given their adamantine opposition to the death penalty, it was supposed his lawyers might try to persuade Hayes to leverage his guilty plea in return for a plea bargain. But Hayes evidently continued in his obduracy, and his attorneys announced grandly that "We do not think that we can partake in such a stained and sordid process that greases the wheels of the machinery of death for such a diminished, tortured and suffering human being. We do not relish abandoning this client under such circumstances nor have we ever done so in our lengthy professional careers.

"However, when the dignity and respect of the proceedings are controlled by a defendant operating under such an obvious diminished mental capacity ... we fear that we may not have any other choice.”

Hayes’ attorneys requested that the court delay the proceeding for two weeks so they might gather evidence to show that while Hayes is competent to stand trial, he is never-the-less incompetent to decide to reverse his plea.

The public defenders indicated they would abandon the case if, as seemed likely, the judge decided that competency was an either-or proposition that would not allow Hayes to be judged competent to stand trial but incompetent to disappoint his lawyers.

A precedent has been established in the state for public defenders who abandon their clients after they had decided to plead guilty in capital felony cases. That is precisely what happened in the Michael Ross case. After Ross decided not to contest the judgment against him, a new lawyer was appointed in his case. On the eve of Ross’ execution, Judge Robert Chatigny, whose name was referred to President Barack Obama by U.S. Senators Joseph Lieberman and Chris Dodd to fill a position left vacant on the 2nd Circuit by Judge Sonia Sotomayor elevation to the U.S. Supreme Court, intervened and threatened Ross’ new lawyer with the loss of his law license if he did not persuade his client to agree to yet another hearing in a case in which Ross had long resigned himself to his punishment.

Given Ross’ determination to accept his punishment in the face of strenuous opposition from his public defenders, Chatigny’s interference turned a tragedy into an undignified judicial spectacle.

The Hayes trial seemed to be set on the same path, but at the very last moment the mercurial Hayes changed his mind a second time and told Judge Jon Blue that he was altering his guilty plea once again to not guilty.

The spectacle continues.
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