Directed by: Kate Davis & David Heilbroner.
TV has many True Crime documentary shows – like Dateline, 20/20, 48 Hours and countless others. It would be hypocritical of me to insult these programs, because admittedly, I watch them more often than I would like to admit. But a movie like The Cheshire Murders – which originally aired on HBO in July, and played on CNN over this past weekend – does highlight the difference because those shows, and a deeper documentary that aims to do more than simply provide a glimpse inside a horrific crime. The Cheshire Murders is not structured like a Dateline episode, which more often than not takes the form of whodunit, mainly because in this case, there is no doubt who the guilty are. They are caught almost immediately, confess shortly thereafter, and offer to plead guilty and spend the rest of their lives in jail in exchange for the state not seeking the death penalty, just weeks later. The Cheshire Murders goes deeper than simple guilt or innocence – and offers a shattering, hard to watch film about a bungled police response in the first third, and then gradually turning into a movie about whether or not the death penalty should be applied to anyone. If anyone deserves the death penalty, it’s the two men in this movie. But therein lies the question – does anyone deserve it?
The case in question is horrific and generated worldwide media attention. In brief, in the early morning hours of July 23rd, 2007 - Joshua A. Komisarjevsky and Steven J. Hayes invaded the home of Petit family in Cheshire, Connecticut. They beat the father, William, with a baseball bat and then tie him up in the basement. They then tie up mother Jennifer, 17 year old Hayley and 11 year Michaela, in their separate rooms. The two men wanted money – and weren’t happy with the amount the family had in the house, so when the banks open the next day, Hayes took Jennifer to her bank to have her withdraw $15,000. Although so told the bank manager what was going on, and he phoned the police, Hayes was able to take Jennifer home. Eventually, Jennifer will be raped and strangled to death, Michaela will be raped, and both girls with be doused with gasoline, and the house will be set on fire – killing them both. Father William made it out of the house just in time. During some of this, the police were busy setting up a perimeter around the house – had they acted quicker, lives could have been saved. They were there to grab Komisarjevsky and Hayes as they tried to flee the scene however.
For the movie’s first half hour or so, it seems like it will be about the crime, and the odd police response to it. Why did they do nothing except surround the home? Why didn’t they intercept Hayes and Jennifer before they even got home in the first place? Why did they do nothing to make their presence known to those inside the house? During the time when the police had the home surrounded, was when the most horrific acts inside the home occurred. Could they have done more to prevent the crimes from taking place? While William Petit has never criticized the police response, Jennifer’s family – in particular her sister – wants answers from the police – answers that the police refuse to supply (they also refused to take part in the documentary). What Komisarjevsky and Hayes was despicable, but could they have been stopped?
The movie only gets more complex from there. The movies second third is basically about Komisarjevsky and Hayes themselves – the troubled lives they led, including the childhood sexual abuse they both endured, and the strict religious upbringing Komisarjevsky had. The film has interviews with friends and family of both of the murderers, which detail their lives. The filmmakers don’t do this to try and excuse their actions, but rather to humanize them. Like Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss, or his short-run TV documentary series Death Row, the directors don’t want to excuse the killers, but do want to present them as more than just monsters that they are portrayed as. The people who do inexcusable things are still people – which is a lesson that we continue to need.
And then the last third of the movie – which focuses on the trials of Komisarjevsky and Hayes, is really more about the death penalty than anything else. There is no doubt that both men will be found guilty of murder – they are guilty, and have admitted as much. Had the state simply let them plead guilty and sentenced them to life in prison in the weeks following the crime, the case would have been over. But they wanted the death penalty – which meant a trial had to take place – three years after the murders – and everyone – family, friends, lawyers, and the judge and jury members – had to hear about every sickening aspect of the case. The standard for death as opposed to life in prison is “aggravating” factors compared to “mitigating” factors – essentially meaning the prosecution has to prove why this triple murder is more heinous than other triple murders. Fortunately for the audience of this film, most of the horrific images – the bodies, the pictures Komisarjevsky took of 11 year old Michaela that were pornographic in nature – have never been released to the public, so we don’t have to endure them – everyone involved in the case were not so lucky. Still, hearing the sickening aspects of the case, and Komisarjevsky’s chilling diary entries about it written in jail, are going to be too much for many audience members to bare – so be warned.
The question about the death penalty that the movie raises is an interesting one. Is it more punishment to put people to death – as Hayes in particular wants to be (he tried to commit suicide, and has asked to waive all his appeals rights so he can be executed sooner – and was denied) – or to make them live with what they did for the rest of their lives? Is it worth the extra money – millions were spent on the trials, millions more on all the appeals – than it is to simply lock them up (since the appeals will likely last a decade or more, you aren’t really saving much money on incarceration)? Is putting people to death worth having to put people through the torment of lengthy trials, and delays and the appeals process, where the most horrific details of the crime have to be relived over and over again, really worth it?
The movie, wisely, doesn’t really answer the question. It simply asks the questions, and lets the audience decide for themselves. The film was directed by Kate Davis & David Heilbroner, and it is sad, chilling and unforgettable documentary. Don’t let the fact that it originally aired on HBO, and has since aired on CNN, confuse you into thinking this is just another True Crime TV doc. This is a deep, more disturbing and haunting documentary than that.