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Monday, January 30, 2017

Friend or Foe? My Visit With Steven Hayes on Death Row

I first met Steven Hayes on May 29, 2015. It was a beautiful day on the outside of the Northern Correctional Institution (NCI) in Somers, Connecticut. Overhead, the clouds looked too perfect to be real; set against a canvas of unnatural cobalt blue. In contrast, the recurrent spirals of razor-edged barbed wire that lined the building's roof tops and concrete barricades brought home a hard reality: I was about to enter Death Row.

I signed in as a social visitor even though my visit was hardly social in nature. I was there to look into the eyes of a killer and consider the proposition of writing his life story. 

Security scanned me and handed me a key for a locker where I placed my briefcase. I looked around, intent on memorizing every detail as paper and writing utensils were not allowed for the visit. The interior of NCI takes the concept of brutalist architecture to entirely new levels of ugly. In the lobby where I waited, the enormous cement chairs absurdly resembled the decor in Fred Flintstone's house. In the women’s bathroom, the steel toilets had no lids. Everywhere I turned, I was faced with exposed raw concrete that had never been introduced to paint, let alone drywall. 

After a 20 minute wait, a corrections officer came to fetch me and escorted me down a long, windowless hallway that reminded me of driving through Boston's Big Dig. We were not under water, but it felt that way.

“Hoping to get something juicy?” she asked. I sensed derision in her tone. Three innocent women- correction: a woman and her two children, were killed at the hands of Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky on July 23, 2007. The manner in which they died was beyond abhorrent. The crime involved rape, strangulation, and arson. A father and husband, Dr. Petit, would spend the rest of his life haunted by the memories of that horrific night and day. So no, I was not 'hoping to get something juicy' out of this interview. I was hoping to get some kind of insight into what brought the tragedy about.  Specifically, who was this man, this monster, Steven Hayes? What kind of human being could leave two girls strapped to their beds, douse their rooms with gasoline, and throw down a lit match?   
The killers poured gasoline throughout the Petit home and struck a match.

The visit was set for 1PM. By 1:12, Hayes had still not presented on the other side of the glass in a  room containing four cubicles with phones on both sides. I wondered if his capital defense counsel, Michael Courtney, had convinced him to not talk to me, after all. Days earlier, I had received a less than friendly phone call from Courtney. In a commanding and shall we say, slightly threatening, tone he demanded that I reconsider visiting his client pending the state Supreme Court's review of the legality of the death penalty in Connecticut. He warned that my contact with Hayes could result in an ethics' violation that would endanger my license to practice law. He also followed up with a terse letter, which he faxed to my office, and snail-mailed, for good measure:

May 27, 2015

Dear Ms. Howard:

As per our phone conversation this date, I am specifically directing you to have no further communication with Steven Hayes, who is represented by my office in a death penalty prosecution.

We believe your initiation of contact with a represented party, especially when it concerns the subject matter of the litigation in question, violates Rule 4.2 and 7.3 of the Rules of Professional Conduct.

Very truly yours,
 Michael K. Courtney, Esq.
Capital Defense and Trial Services Unit

Courtney's signature resembled an over-sized, lower case q with an angry side stroke jabbing at the right margin of the page. 'I am not pleased,' it said.

The professional conduct rules in question basically prohibit lawyers from talking to parties already represented by another lawyer, and soliciting clients. I could not see how the rules applied to me as I was visiting Steven Hayes in the capacity of a writer, not an attorney. I had absolutely no intention of involving myself with the litigation at hand, or rendering anything close to legal advice. Moreover, as a lawyer who currently only represents individuals who have been denied Social Security Disability benefits, my involvement in a death row case would be akin to a podiatrist performing brain surgery.  And so, I shrugged off Courtney's call and letter, and simply hoped that I would not come to regret it at a future date. 

There came the enormous, crashing sound of a freight elevator in the near distance; it seemed everything on death row was big and loud. “Looks like he’s here,” the corrections officer said. She turned and left, locking the door behind her. Alone, I waited for the appearance of Steven Hayes on the other side of the plexiglass. I had various pictures of him in my mind. There was the best-known mugshot image of a hefty bald man in orange prison garb staring angrily at the camera just following his arrest for the Petit murders. A more recent mug shot depicted a still hefty, bearded man whose eyes weren’t quite so hostile.

I was also familiar with images of him from the HBO documentary, The Cheshire Murders: Hayes as a fat and unattractive baby, his face not dissimilar to his adult face; Hayes in his twenties, smiling and neatly dressed in a plaid flannel shirt and pressed trousers, standing with his mother outside her home in Winsted, Connecticut; Hayes as a long-haired, disheveled hippie sporting a handlebar moustache... Over the decades, Hayes apparently underwent more image transformations than Madonna.
No prior transformations could have prepared me for the new and revised Steven Hayes. He approached the cubicle with a light step to his gait- unusual, considering the fact that he was heavily handcuffed and his legs were shackled. His face lit up with a boyish grin when he saw me. No kidding, if I inadvertently bumped into this scrawny little man in a cramped grocery store aisle, with his long grey beard and his friendly, twinkling eyes, I would say sorry and move along without a thought. 

He sat down and picked up the receiver to the red phone at his side. I picked up my receiver and we started to talk. As we spoke, I observed the notorious criminal with a certain degree of morbid curiosity. Though his eyes contained warmth and light, he had all the makings of a dead man walking. His sallow cheeks were sunken in, and the skin beneath his eyes was dark from exhaustion and poor diet. He had missing teeth, and his front tooth, dark and decaying, stuck out. Here before me was the skeletal product of living day after monotonous day, night after sleepless night, on Death Row; starve a member of ZZ Top and put a yarmulke on his head, and you would get the present version of Steven Hayes. 

We discussed the Petit family murders, his newfound Jewish faith, his feelings towards his brothers, Matthew and Brian, his nonexistent relationship with his daughter, and his complaints about the way that he has been allegedly mistreated by the Connecticut Department of Corrections. Mostly, we discussed his lengthy history of drug and alcohol abuse that, he felt, led to a life of petty crime before culminating in the hellish nightmare of events that led him to death row.   

I left that visit on friendly terms with Hayes, and I seriously considered writing a book about him, which he wanted to title, Anatomy of a Monster. It was a good title, I told him. I could see the paperback cover in my head, with a haunting image of the Petit family home sketched overtop a sea of rising red and yellow flames. In the year or so that followed, I struggled with whether or not I should tackle the project. Ultimately, I listened to my gut instinct and decided not to write the book. In my next blog, I will share with you my reasons for not writing a book about Hayes and, most importantly, I will share the details of our conversation on Death Row and subsequent written and telephone correspondence. Hayes, like all sociopaths, is a complicated man: kind and friendly on the surface, with layers of manipulation and ill intent that are revealed over time.
The Connecticut Supreme Court found the death penalty unconstitutional a few months after I visited Hayes. He now serves a life sentence at a prison in Pennsylvania. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

A Dangerous Bite: The Murder of Michael Aranow

On a warm summer night in July, 1978, two fourth-year medical students, Michael Aranow and Steven Asherman, walked into the the forest at Jones' Mountain in New Hartford, Connecticut. Ten hours later, only only one of them would emerge from that forest alive.  
Asherman, pictured here with his wife, was charged with the murder of Aranow.
A disheveled, 28-year old Steven Asherman knocked on the door of Aranow's uncle, Frank Jones Jr., at 7:30 on the morning of July 30. Shirtless and out of breath, he told Jones that he had driven to the family estate from NYC with Aranow the night before, and the two classmates had walked into the forest with the intention of hiking up to Lookout Point. During the walk, they were confronted by two inebriated men; one wielding a knife, and the other carrying a gun. Asherman had a black belt in karate, and he managed to push one of the men away and flee. Aranow also fled, but in a different direction. As the night wore on, Asherman wandered the woods and eventually fell asleep. When he awoke the next morning, he came upon the home of Aranow's uncle.
Photo from Inside Detective Magazine, December 1979

A search immediately ensued, and it was Jones who found his nephew's body about one mile away from the main house. Fully clothed, the 27-year old medical student was more than dead- he had been mutilated from head to toe to the tune of 108 stab wounds. Clearly, his killer had some incredible rage burning inside when he committed the gruesome act. Given the violent nature of the crime, it was also likely that the killer was no stranger to Aranow, and the motive behind the killing was highly personal.

Asherman's story was bizarre from start to finish: two men going for a late night hike? Post-altercation, after fleeing in terror, Asherman eventually falls to sleep? And what happened to his bright yellow shirt? He stated that it tore to pieces as he was running from the drunken men, so he took it off and threw it away. 

Despite its many oddities, the murder of Michael Aranow was not an open and shut case.  The 7-hour long autopsy was interrupted many times, and the medical examiner failed to run a saliva test on a bite mark located on the victim's left shoulder. That bite mark would become a centerpiece of the case at trial. Photos and measurements of the mark on Aranow's shoulder had been taken, and the jury needed to determine if the mark reflected the pattern and measurements of Asherman's teeth. 

It would be the first "bite mark" case in Connecticut. A dentist testifying for the prosecution stated at trial that the bite mark "could have been made" by Asherman, but he was unable to draw a definitive conclusion. In contrast, three forensic dentists testified on behalf of the defense and unanimously agreed that the bite mark did not belong to Asherman. Those same experts had testified against Ted Bundy only three weeks earlier, in what was Florida's first "bite mark" case. 

Dental forensic testimony sent Bundy to the electric chair. 
There, Bundy had left a bite mark on the left buttock of his victim, Lisa Levy. Photographs of Bundy's front upper and lower teeth and gums documented an uneven pattern that matched the impression left on Levy's flesh. Using a transparent sheet, the prosecution lay an enlarged photograph of the bite mark over a photograph of the structure of Bundy's teeth. The experts explained how the unique alignment, size, and sharpness of Bundy's teeth were exactly reflected in the bite mark on Levy's buttock. Even some chips in the teeth were noted, and for that reason, Bundy was watched closely weeks before the trial to make sure that he did not try to file down the evidence.  

It comes as no surprise that the same dental forensic experts who contributed to a finding of guilt in Bundy's case, when testifying on Asherman's behalf, created doubt in the mind of the Connecticut jurors. Early on, the jury voted 8-4 for acquittal, but that was not enough to free Asherman. They deliberated for 24 more hours and eventually agreed upon guilt. However, two jurors maintained that they thought Asherman was innocent, and this led to the first time in the state's court history where jurors were asked to take the stand and explain their deliberations and respond to allegations of misconduct.
Hounds searched the wooded terrain of Jones' Mountain.

Asherman did not begin his 7-14 year prison sentence until his appeals were exhausted, in 1985. He was released on February 11, 1992. I try to refrain from stating whether I think a defendant is innocent or guilty, but since this is a "vintage" murder case and the verdict has long since been rendered and the sentence served, I will say that I think Asherman's defense counsel introduced enough evidence, by way of forensic dental testimony, to result in an acquittal based on reasonable doubt. Moreover, the evidence presented by the prosecution was highly circumstantial. There was no DNA, no weapon, no witness- nada. I also think that one of the defense team's dental experts made a good point when stating in an article for the Hartford Courant dated February 11, 1992, that Asherman had a "credibility problem." He went on to say, "He's the kind of person you might not want to buy a used car from, but that doesn't mean he committed a homicide. Still, it was tough to believe."
The murder weapon was never found. 
Walking my dog on Jones' Mountain in New Hartford, CT. 

Who knows what happened on Jones' Mountain on July 29, 1978? Locals have wondered if Asherman and Aranow were romantically involved, although Asherman was married. Or perhaps Aranow made an advance, and Asherman went ballistic?  It's a murder mystery that continues to confound the residents of New Hartford, Connecticut- myself included.    

Post-script: Thank you to my friend and colleague, Attorney Regina Wexler, for loaning me the Inside Detective magazine, circa December 1979, that she purchased as a true crime collector on E-Bay. Several of the photos in this post originate from that old article. I also greatly enjoyed looking at the out-dated advertisements for cigarettes and diet pills. 
The savage murder of Michael Aranow was the cover story of the December '79 issue.