The horrific July 2007 attack by two intruders on the Petit family (William Petit, his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and their daughters, Michaela and Hayley) at their Cheshire, Conn., home goes right to the essence of a core American fear, an abject anxiety that motivates some of us to buy alarm systems and handguns. Once in a while, evil really does come right through the front door, violating all sense of security, community and justice.
Kate Davis and David Heilbroner’s “The Cheshire Murders,” a powerful and unforgettably thorough HBO documentary, is not only an exploration of what happened (difficult questions linger, particularly about the response of the town’s police to the initial 911 call), it also invites a frank and remarkably even-handed discussion of what sort of punishment could ever fit the crime.
“The Cheshire Murders” (which debuted July 22) lands at a strange and hair-triggered moment in our culture: Fresh off the unsatisfying but legally inevitable conclusion to the George Zimmerman trial in Florida (and President Obama’s news conference calling for more soul-searching on the matter), we next leapt into a heated debate over Rolling Stone magazine’s cover treatment of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
These three unrelated matters nevertheless invite the same level of moral outrage. “The Cheshire Murders,” which Davis and Heilbroner spent years filming, walks us through a story that is difficult to stomach and potentially volatile. But unlike crime-fixated narrative news programs (“Dateline” and its ilk), the filmmakers find a more deliberate and calm way to ask the hardest question of all: Do Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, the men who murdered Hawke-Petit and her daughters (and bludgeoned Petit to near death), deserve to die?
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If you’re tempted to holler OF COURSE! in quick reply and then click a link to some fresh atrocity, go ahead; “The Cheshire Murders,” with its determination to hear all sides, is probably not for you. For the rest of us, “The Cheshire Murders” is another one of those HBO documentaries that will affect you long after you’ve seen it. (I’m still mulling over Liz Garbus’ film “There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane,” which aired two years ago.)
“The Cheshire Murders” begins by recounting the crime: A bank manager calls 911 and tells a dispatcher that a frightened customer (Hawke-Petit, seen on security footage) has withdrawn $15,000 and told a teller that she and her family have been held hostage all night in their home. One of her captors is waiting for her in the car in the parking lot. She gets in the car, and it leaves.
According to dispatch logs shown in the film, police arrived outside the Petit house within minutes and set up a perimeter. Yet, over the next 20 to 30 minutes, Hawke-Petit was raped and strangled; Michaela, 11, had been sexually assaulted; she and her sister Hayley, 17, were tied to their beds and doused in gasoline; their barely conscious father was escaping from the basement and into the backyard, just as Hayes and Komisarjevsky set the house ablaze and attempted to flee. They were almost immediately apprehended by waiting officers; trapped inside the house, the girls died of smoke inhalation.
For the first third of the film, it seems this is what “The Cheshire Murders” will be about — an inquiry into what appears to be bungled police procedure. Hawke-Petit’s sister, Cindy Hawke-Renn, is especially persuasive on this point, considering it her duty to press officials for more details, which they still won’t share. (Cheshire’s law enforcement officials declined to be interviewed for the film.)
Petit, an endocrinologist, survived his injuries and, through his grief, established a foundation in his wife and daughters’ memory, returning to court day after day to insist justice be served. It would be easy for “The Cheshire Murders” to simply draw on our tendency to be transfixed by details of such crimes and aftermath. In the modern intersection of heinous acts and nonfiction storytelling, we’ve had this hunger since Truman Capote went to Kansas in 1959 to nose around the Clutter family murders.
Instead, Davis and Heilbroner use the back third of their film to revisit the death-penalty issue — which includes brave conversations with Hawke-Petit’s parents (her father is a minister), who seem to personify the argument that personal grief can drastically alter your opinion; once someone you love is viciously murdered, the debate is no longer abstract. Although Hayes and Komisarjevsky offered to plead guilty in exchange for permanent imprisonment, prosecutors pursued the death penalty on behalf of the family and, most significantly, our society’s sense of putting it right. (Both men were sentenced to death; it seems unlikely that it will be carried out.) Even if you’re firmly decided on this, arguments for and against executing the men are equally compelling.
More provocatively, “The Cheshire Murders” digs deep to produce a full and, at times, heartbreaking portrait of the killers. It’s clear that we live in a hyper-media era, in which a quest for knowledge is easily confused with an act of glamorizing criminals. “The Cheshire Murders” is proof that such forms of documentary journalism are vital to our understanding of who we are — who we all are, even the worst among us.