Conn. court imposes gag order in home-invasion case

By The Associated Press
11.07.07

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — A judge imposed a gag order yesterday that bars prosecutors and defense lawyers from talking to news organizations about the case against two suspects in a highly publicized fatal home invasion in Cheshire.

Superior Court Judge Richard A. Damiani rejected arguments by David P. Atkins, a lawyer representing The Hartford Courant, that other measures were available to assure a fair trial for Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes. The paroled burglars are charged with killing a mother and her two daughters, beating the girls' father and setting their house on fire.

"I hope it works," Damiani said of his order.

Patrick Culligan, a public defender who represents Hayes, says adverse publicity from news stories will make it impossible for his client to receive a fair trial by an impartial jury.

Changing the location of the trial will not serve the community where the killings occurred and questioning jurors closely to determine how much they know about the case and spot possible biases is "too little, too late," he said.

Atkins said thorough questioning of prospective jurors about the extent of their knowledge of the case and determining possible biases would be sufficient. He also said legal precedent permits a change of venue for the trial or trials, which has yet to be scheduled.

"Will this order be effective? Will it work?" Atkins asked Damiani. "How much more detail reported in the press will make more of a difference?"

Damiani said his order last month releasing blacked-out versions of the arrest warrants for Komisarjevsky and Hayes was not entirely successful.

"Now it appears to be leaked to the press, statements I redacted from the search warrant," he said.

The judge also downplayed the effectiveness of moving the trial because the July 23 killings of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, 17-year-old Hayley and 11-year-old Michaela, became national news. Hawke-Petit was strangled and the two girls died of smoke inhalation during the fire, authorities say.

And Damiani said questioning of prospective jurors to ensure a fair trial also might not work, citing people who reacted in disbelief at the recent not guilty pleas by Hayes and Komisarjevsky.

"People I know came up to me personally or called me on the phone (asking), 'How can those two plead not guilty?'" he said.

Komisarjevsky, 27, of Cheshire, and Hayes, 44, of Winsted, face capital felony and multiple murder, kidnapping, sexual-assault and arson charges.

Atkins said after the hearing that Damiani's ruling was sweeping and vague. The judge said Komisarjevsky and Hayes may be tried separately, prompting Atkins to question if the gag order would extend up to and during the trial or trials, which he said could take years.

"It's a setback for newsgathering functions guaranteed by the federal and state constitutions," Atkins said.