The trial of Steven Hayes for the Cheshire home invasion murders was "an excruciating ordeal" for Public Defender Thomas J. Ullmann, an outspoken opponent of the death penalty in Connecticut.
Hayes was convicted of capital felony murder and other charges and sentenced to the death penalty last fall.
"I was devastated by that verdict," said Ullmann, who led Hayes’s defense team. He spoke about it Thursday evening at the .
He said Hayes was pleased, however, when the jury decided he should be executed, and even consoled his attorneys in the courtroom.
Ullmann acknowledged that Hayes is not a sympathetic figure. Although he pleaded not guilty, he admitted his role in the murders of Jennifer Hawke Petit and her two daughters. The defense was not trying to keep him from being punished, only to keep him off death row.
But Ullmann said his moral conscience and the professional standards for attorneys required that a zealous defense be presented on behalf of Hayes and others accused of a death penalty offense.
Ullmann is the chief public defender for the Judicial District of New Haven. He was introduced as "one of the premier defense attorneys in the state." He wears a distinctive beard, which was described in the introduction as "Amish" looking.
His talk was the first in the JCC’s "Perspectives" speaker series, which will continue on April 28 with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies.
As a topic, it is certainly of intense interest for Connecticut residents. Jury selection is underway in New Haven for the trial of the second defendant in the 2007 triple murder case, Joshua Komisarjevsky.
And the state Legislature is considering a bill to abolish the death penalty in Connecticut. That would not save Komisarjevsky if he is found guilty, or Hayes, because it would only apply to crimes committed in the future.
Ullmann said he recruited new defense lawyers for Komisarjevsky. His office is still filing appeals for Hayes, making it a conflict of interest to represent his co-defendant.
During his talk, he addressed the media coverage of the trial, the effect of the trial on himself and his family, and why the death penalty was the wrong punishment, and then answered questions from the audience.
He said Hayes gave him permission to talk about the trial, but he could not discuss the Komisarjevsky trial.
"We have become a vindictive society," Ullmann told the audience. As evidence, he displayed selected letters and online comments concerning the Hayes trial that included personal attacks and death threats aimed not only at Hayes, but also at his defense lawyers.
Some of the threats were serious enough to warrant investigations by the state police, he said. Most of the commentary was anonymous.
Ullmann said immediately after learning about the Cheshire home invasion arrests he knew the public defender’s office would get the case. Death penalty legal defenses in Connecticut cost millions of dollars, and the defendants often can’t pay for it, so that means the state’s taxpayers must pick up the cost.
He said his wife argued against his involvement, because a previous case he defended, of Jonathan Mills who was accused of murdering a mother and two young children in Guilford in 2004, took such a toll on him. Mills was convicted and sentenced to life.
"People asked me, ‘How can you defend that guy?’" he said.
But, ultimately, his family, friends and neighbors supported him, even while he was the target of threats and hate mail.
Ullmann opposes recent decisions to allow cameras and computers into courtrooms, permitting Twitter feeds of trials as they occur. None of this interfered with the lawyers and prosecutors in the Hayes trial, but he believes it did have an effect on the jury.
"I think this kind of media coverage is affecting fair trial rights," he said.
Reporters usually attempt to make sure their information is correct, but Ullmann said that wasn’t true for reporters attempting to be the first to post Twitter accounts of the trial.
During jury selection, Hayes tried to kill himself. Prison officials rushed him to the hospital to save his life.
Ullmann said the state had already turned down a defense offer for Hayes to plead guilty in return for a sentence of life without possibility of release, so it was ironic that the state should save Hayes’s life only so he could be executed.
He also noted that Amnesty International recently listed the United States fifth among countries with the most executions per year. Other countries in the top 10 included China, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran and North Korea (not necessarily in that order).
But since 1973, 138 death row inmates have been exonerated and released. Ullmann said he is convinced one convicted murderer he defended, who was sentence to life in prison, is actually innocent.
"To this day, we have wrongful convictions that go on in this country and this state," he said.
He said the reasons include false identifications, false confessions, corrupt police officers, bad prosecutors and judges, and incompetent defense lawyers.
Moreover, he noted, 60 to 70 percent of prison inmates in the United States are blacks or Hispanics. "Something’s wrong," Ullmann said.
He said the high cost of defending death penalty cases is another worrisome problem. Not only is it an unnecessary expense, it also diverts funds needed for the legal defense of other indigent defendants.
Ullmann said the Hayes defense has already cost about $2 million, and estimated the cost could top $6 million before all the appeals are concluded.
After his unsuccessful suicide attempt, Ullmann said he had to talk Hayes out of pleading guilty, which would be tantamount to suicide. He said Hayes prefers that to a life.
He said Hayes is 47, has health problems and is hated by correction officers and other inmates. He is kept in a small cell for 23 hours a day. If he is not murdered by another inmate, Ullmann estimated Hayes would live only another 20 years.
In response to questions, Ullmann said support for the death penalty in Connecticut drops from 65 percent to below 50 percent when life without the possibility of release is one of the choices.
A veterinarian asked about the morality of keeping a human being in a cage for 20 or 30 years. "I think we as human beings and governments should not be killing people," he said.
Earlier in his talk, Ullmann said he doesn’t believe a person could be against capital punishment except in certain circumstances. One must either be for it or against it, he said.
He said he is haunted by the Hayes trial - about what he could have done differently. He noted he didn’t use all of the peremptory challenges, which lawyers can use to excuse a prospective juror without giving a reason. He only used 30, the same number as prosecutors used.
"You would think the defense would use many more challenges than the state," Ullmann said. If he had, he wonders if he could have kept Hayes off death row.
"I should have won that case," he said.