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Convicted killer seeks new trial over Connecticut home invasion

Joshua Komisarjevsky

March 14: Joshua Komisarjevsky's trial began on Monday, Sept. 19, 2011, in the New Haven Superior Court, where he faces the death penalty on charges of killing Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters in a July 2007 home invasion in Cheshire, Conn. (AP/Connecticut Department of Correction)

Lawyers for convicted murderer Joshua Komisarjevsky are asking a judge for a new trial in the home invasion killings of a woman and her two daughters, saying the case should have been moved out of New Haven County because there was no way he could get a fair trial there.

Komisarjevsky filed a motion for a new trial Wednesday in New Haven Superior Court. A jury sentenced him to death last month for the 2007 killings of Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, 11-year-old Michaela and 17-year-old Hayley, at their home in Cheshire, about 20 miles north of New Haven. He joined co-defendant Steven Hayes on Connecticut's death row.

Komisarjevsky's lawyers, Jeremiah Donovan, Walter Bansley III and Todd Bussert, say if ever there was a case that deserved a change of venue, it was their client's. They said a judge was wrong to reject their motion filed before the trial to move the proceedings out of the New Haven area, and said Komisarjevsky's constitutional right to a fair and impartial jury was violated.

"Almost the entire pool of potentially eligible jurors in New Haven County was familiar with the case and that nearly as many had made up their respective minds that Mr. Komisarjevsky was not only guilty but also that he should be executed," the lawyers' motion says.

The defense had presented the testimony of Stephen Penrod, an expert on the effects of pretrial publicity on jury selection. Penrod said surveys showed that Komisarjevsky's case had the highest recognition rate among more than 100 notorious cases for which similar surveys were done. The two cases that ranked below Komisarjevsky's for recognition were the Oklahoma City bombing cases of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.

Komisarjevsky's lawyers also said the jury pool was tainted because of the "highly publicized advocacy of the victims," how members of the courtroom audience were positioned and "the emotional effect of a clearly visible Petit posse silently but powerfully advocating that the defendant be put to death."

They said the lone survivor of the attack, Dr. William Petit, was at the trial every day "two arm reaches away" from the nearest juror. They said Petit had become a "media celebrity" and that he and his supporters wore pins honoring the three victims in the courtroom.

New Haven State's Attorney Michael Dearington declined to comment about the defense's claims Thursday. Judge Jon C. Blue will hear arguments Wednesday on the motion for a new trial.

Komisarjevsky's lawyers also say their client was denied his right to probable cause hearings when the state amended the charges against him. Defendants in murder cases have a right to such hearings to see if there is enough evidence to proceed to trial. They say Komisarjevsky was denied his right to confront a "powerful" witness -- a judge who called Komisarjevsky a "predator" while sentencing him for a series of burglaries before the killings and whose comments were used as testimony during the penalty phase of Komisarjevsky's trial.

Hayes raped and strangled Hawke-Petit, while Komisarjevsky sexually assaulted Michaela. Michaela and Hayley were tied to their beds, doused in gas and died of smoke inhalation after the house was set on fire.
Komisarjevsky beat Dr. Petit with a bat and tied him up. Petit escaped to a neighbor's house to get help.

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