HARTFORD, Conn. – Juror Paula Calzetta witnessed evidence in a gruesome triple murder trial that she fears will stay with her for as long as she lives: photographs of the remains of an 11-year-old young girl killed by a fire in her own bedroom.
A sickening feeling stayed with her for weeks as prosecutors detailed the summer night in 2007 when assailants invaded the family's home in an idyllic Connecticut town and tormented them for hours before killing the mother and her two daughters.
"I actually felt a physical tension and I become ill," said Calzetta, a 55-year-old retired probation officer from Guilford, Conn.
In interviews Tuesday with The Associated Press, Calzetta and other members of the 12-person jury that convicted and sentenced Steven Hayes described the experience as a wrenching ordeal. Some said they broke down in tears during deliberations before reaching the unanimous verdict that Hayes should be condemned to die.
Hayes, a paroled burglar, was convicted of murdering Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, 11-year-old Michaela and 17-year-old Hayley, in Cheshire, a wealthy New Haven suburb. His co-defendant, Joshua Komisarjevsky, will be tried next year.
Since the start of the trial in September, jurors had been sitting through sometimes horrific testimony inside the New Haven courtroom before returning home, where they were forbidden by the judge to discuss details of the case with even their families. The evidence took an emotional toll.
"It started to wear me down," said Ian Cassell, the 35-year-old jury foreman. "Usually if something is going on in your life that's difficult, you talk about it, but we couldn't get into it with really anyone."
The photo of Michaela's remains marked an emotional low point for several jurors.
The young girl and her sister were tied to their beds and had gasoline poured on or around them before the men set the house on fire, according to testimony. The girls died of smoke inhalation.
"The pictures, those only intensify in time for me. That will never be erased from my mind," Calzetta said. "It was clear she struggled to get free."
Another juror, Maico Cardona, said he could not stop thinking about his own 10-year-old daughter and the horror that Michaela must have lived.
"I had this recurring dream of a little girl tied up to bed who's screaming for my help and I can't help her. It's never going to go away," said Cardona, a 31-year-old trainer for Verizon Wireless from Hamden, Conn.
New Haven Superior Court Judge Jon Blue acknowledged the demands on the panel as he thanked them for their service Monday, saying, "You have been exposed to images of depravity and horror that no human being should have to see."
Once the jury began deliberating a sentence, some said it was a relief to at least be able to discuss the case with their peers. Although some initially opposed a death sentence, the consensus gradually emerged over four days of tense, emotional meetings behind closed doors.
Cassell, the foreman, was among the early holdouts. He said he personally does not believe in the death penalty, but in the end he was obliged to follow Connecticut state law and apply the maximum penalty.
"Once you get into deliberations and really dig into the evidence, I couldn't find that one thing that I wanted that would push over the edge to life. I was really looking for it because I didn't want to send this guy to death row," said Cassell, who works for the Yale University library system.
Juror Lenus Gibbs, a 26-year military veteran and former mortuary worker, said he was shocked by the brutality of the crime.
"I've seen a lot of gruesome things, but this was just overwhelming," said Gibbs, 65, who added that he broke down as they went back over the evidence during deliberations.
The emotional effect of the trial is likely to stay with the jurors, according to Philip Tracy Jr., a Boston defense attorney with experience in death penalty cases.
"It has a profound effect. I recommend they seek some kind of counseling," Tracy said. "Their role is so difficult because they saw the evidence, they saw what was done, and then they have to vote on the death penalty. It multiplies the anxiety level."
After announcing their verdict the jurors met in the courthouse basement with Dr. William Petit, the husband and father of the victims. Calzetta said she was grateful for the opportunity to express condolences.
Cassell said his experience on the jury offered a lesson on the transience of life.
"It paints a bigger picture for me outside my family and bills, how things can change so quickly," he said. "The Petits had no idea. A couple hours go by, and that's it. Life changed for everyone."