In the early-morning hours of July 23, 2007, in Cheshire, Connecticut, ex-convicts Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky broke into the family home of Dr. William Petit, his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and their daughters, Michaela, 11, and Hayley, 17. Dr. Petit was beaten and tied to a pole in the basement. The three women were bound in their bedrooms while the men ransacked the house. The brutal ordeal continued throughout the morning, ending with rape, arson and a horrific triple homicide.
The intruders were caught minutes after fleeing the Petit home and overnight, news of their crime sent shock waves across the nation, while Cheshire residents retreated behind newly locked doors. The Cheshire Murders takes viewers behind the scenes of the case, from the morning of the crime through two death-penalty trials five years later.
Directed and produced by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner (HBO’s Emmy-winning Jockey), The Cheshire Murders is a universal human tale of the search for justice in the face of a crime that seemed to have permanently upended small-town life. This multi-layered documentary features exclusive interviews with victims’ and perpetrators’ friends and families, as well as attorneys, journalists and mental-health professionals involved in the case. Revealing the untold life stories of the perpetrators, as well as detailing failures of police and the parole system to prevent this tragedy, the film probes the deep impact of the crime and explores what it means to deliver justice in the wake of such loss.
After the initial break-in, Hayes took Jennifer Hawke-Petit to the bank, where she withdrew $15,000 and alerted the teller that her family was being held hostage. Hayes took the money and drove her home. By 10:00 a.m., when the men fled the Petit residence, Jennifer and her younger daughter had been sexually assaulted and the home had been doused with gasoline and set ablaze. Only Dr. Petit survived, escaping through a bulkhead door, bloodied and dazed. Hayes and Komisarjevsky were apprehended within moments.
Later, facing calls for their execution, the perpetrators offered to plead guilty and accept sentences of life without release. But the prosecution demanded death, sparking a public debate in a state that had been poised to abolish capital punishment.
The Cheshire Murders looks at the death penalty in a case where guilt is a foregone conclusion. To Dr. Petit and others, the Petit home invasion became a rallying cry for executions. Some argued, however, that the process costs millions, that the case will be tied up in appeals for years, making it unlikely the two will ever be put to death, and that the surviving victims will be re-traumatized by ongoing court battles.
In addition to the 2004 documentary Jockey, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s HBO credits include Plastic Disasters, The Adolescent Addict (part of the Addiction series) and Diagnosis Bipolar: Five Families Search for Answers. Davis also directed, produced and edited the Emmy-nominated 2002 HBO documentary Southern Comfort, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.
The Cheshire Murders was directed, produced and edited by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner. For HBO: senior producer, Lisa Heller; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.