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Saturday, February 4, 2017

My Death Row Visit with Steven Hayes: Writing True Crime and the Risk of Getting Sued

I visited Steven Hayes on Connecticut's death row in May of 2015 for the purpose of discussing the possibility of writing a true crime novel about him and his part in the notorious Petit home invasion murders. Although Hayes proposed the title, Anatomy of a Monster, it did not seem to me that he wanted to depict himself as a monster in the upcoming book. Rather, he wanted the story to be similar to the one told in A Million Little Pieces.  He told me that he had taken that book out of the prison library and read it with great appreciation and understanding. True, it later came to pass that the book was not based on actual facts and was more an imaginative fictional work in the mind of it's fraudulent author, but the bigger point was that Hayes liked the concept of telling his story as a kind of morality tale. Alcohol and drugs were the enemy, according to Hayes, and 'but for' his lifelong addictions, the horrific events that transpired in the Petit family home in July 2007 would never have occurred.

Did I buy that argument? No. As a disability attorney, I have represented many individuals with histories of drug and/or alcohol addictions. None of them strangled and raped an innocent woman while her husband was bludgeoned and then tied to a post in  the basement, or left two children to die in a burning house. Fair to say, Hayes' thesis was a bit of a stretch. Moreover, I had watched the HBO documentary The Cheshire Murders several times over before our visit. According to that source, Hayes and his partner in crime, Joshua Komisarjevsky, had found beer in the Petit's refrigerator and "drank all night" before the murders took place. I challenged Hayes with the question of how drinking a six pack, or even half a case, could result in what happened.
Komisarjevsky and Hayes: the unlikely pair first met at a halfway house.

It was perhaps the one time in our hour long visit that I voiced skepticism, and he seemed taken aback.  He admitted that part was true. He wasn't drunk when the murders occurred, nor was he high on drugs. However, his lifetime of addiction had brought him to a very dark place- to the point where he would commit acts that he never thought he would commit. "What went through your head when you killed Dr. Petit's wife?" I asked. "She seemed like a lovely, Christian woman."

"Yes, she was," he readily agreed. "When we drove back from the bank that morning, I was very nice to her. When we got out of the car and went back into the house, if someone saw us together, they would think that we were girlfriend and boyfriend."

Red flag. Girlfriend and boyfriend? Really? Did he want to blame that sick romantic fantasy on a history of substance abuse, too?

"Then why did you kill her, Steven?" I asked (not adding to it the fact that he raped her as well.)

"I blacked out," he replied. "I still don't remember doing any of it."

I let his answer go. If I did end up writing his story, I needed to go easy on the cross examination during our first visit. "So tell me about the drugs," I said. To some extent, I could believe that drug and alcohol addictions were at least a part of a bigger picture. Arguably, prior to the Cheshire murders, Hayes' lengthy police record comprised mostly car burglaries in order to get drug money, and he was not considered a violent offender. What caused him to make the leap from petty thief to savage killer?

Hayes went on to describe a 30-day drug binge that he had been on just before the murders took place. At the time of the murders, he was in a state of extreme withdrawal, and he would have done anything to get his next fix. Prior to that, he said, he had been sober for four years. People used to call him "Mr. N.A." because he was so well-versed in the rule books for Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous. He said, with pride, that he had helped many people as a teacher and sponsor during that period of sobriety. His hope, was that he could get back to helping people again. "If this book keeps just one person from ruining their life with drugs, then it is worth it," he told me.
One year later, I would speak with Hayes' treating psychologist. Hayes wanted her to turn over all of his therapy records- about eighteen months worth, so I could include details from those sessions in the upcoming book. This gave me pause. As a writer, would I be able to read between the lines of these records, as I did during our initial visit, and draw from them conclusions in the final book that Hayes' did not anticipate me drawing; conclusions that were not supportive of the 'but for the drugs' hypothesis, but instead focused on other aspects of his character? For example, his own brothers describe him as manipulative and deceptive, especially with their mother. That tendency to manipulate has presented numerous times since he was convicted for the Petit murders, like when he promised to confess to murders that he did not commit in exchange for a plate of oysters. Hayes is deathly allergic to oysters and this was part of a plan to end his life on his own terms, sans lethal injection. The scheme never came to fruition.

Most recently, in 2014, Hayes' sued the state for not providing Kosher food to him in prison and thereby violating his religious rights as a self-professed, new member of the Jewish faith. Hayes solicited my legal counsel on the matter on many occasions, but I refused involvement. I couldn't help but wonder, 'If you are so into God, why do you want to sue a nonprofit lawyer who you claim misadvised you? That doesn't sound like a very kind thing to do..."

Needless to say, with respect to Anatomy of a Monster, the writing was on the wall- and the sense of impending danger was certainly gnawing in my gut. This man, Steven Hayes, was trouble. Were I naive enough to write a book about him, then I would have no one to blame but myself when the inevitable civil lawsuit was filed, Hayes vs. Howard, with the plaintiff claiming that I misled him into the understanding that this would be a N.A. style book intended to help people with addictions, only to cruelly betray him by honestly telling another story.
Author Joe McGinniss was sued by a psychopath. 

There is precedent for such law suits. Family murderer Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald made the life of author Joe McGinniss a living hell for over a decade with litigation involving the publication of Fatal Vision.  There is no saying how much McGinniss had to spend on legal fees to defend his classic novel, in addition to forking out $325,000.00 to MacDonald in the final settlement. The two had no written contract saying that McGinniss thought MacDonald was innocent, or promising to portray him as such. I am still amazed at the unfairness of that outcome. Evidently, so was McGinniss. I recently listened to an interview done just before his death in 2014 and the bitterness in the author's tone was evident.

Such is the price of writing true crime. Authors, beware. Carefully assess the frigid waters before you take the final plunge.

A few weeks from now, I will publish a third and final post regarding my 2015 death row visit with Steven Hayes. Part III of the series will address Hayes' childhood and adolescence, and his suicide attempt just prior to the Petit Home Invasion Murders. 

Finally, I would like to offer my sincere thanks to a recent critic who wrote to me: "Your blog is a stain", and banned me from further publication on that particular subreddit. Some of my favorite writers have a history of being banned. I therefore take your opinion as the highest of compliments.

Anne K. Howard   

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