The murder trial of Steven J. Hayes, one of the two men suspected of committing the horrific Cheshire triple murders, got underway this week in New Haven. Social networking tools like Twitter (For example, search for #hayes or #cheshire) have allowed observers to get the grisly play-by-play of the trial as it happens. Juxtaposed to the speed with which information about the trial exits the courtroom, however, are the 1,148 days that have passed since the commission of the crime and the beginning of the trial.
Though William Gladstone’s “Justice delayed is justice denied” adage is cited so frequently these days that it has become cliché, it does seem sadly appropriate in this case.
The National Center for State Courts maintains a database of Case Processing Time Standards, which lay down guidelines for how much time should elapse between indictment and disposition of a case. Like many states, Connecticut’s voluntary guidelines for Class A felonies call for 100 percent of cases to move from arrest to disposition within 180 days.
Hayes faces 17 felony charges ranging from murder to burglary, including 14 Class A felonies, two Class B felonies, and one Class D felony. Alleged accomplice Joshua Komisarjevsky is accused of 14 Class A felonies, 5 Class B felonies, and two Class C felonies.
According to a June 2000 research brief by the National Institute for Justice, the American Bar Association sets a goal of resolving all felony cases within one year from the date of arrest.
Using either of these measures, justice in the Cheshire case is more than two years overdue.
The same study, in which criminal courts in nine different states were studied to assess case processing speed, found that 68 percent of felony cases were resolved within 180 days. Interestingly, it also found that the pace of proceedings often depended as much on the local legal culture as it did on the particulars of the cases involved.
This evidence suggests that the process can be sped up without significant additional investment of resources and without sacrificing the fairness and quality of the trials. Given the magnitude of the horror in the Cheshire case and the slow process that has carried its suspects to trial, cultural changes seem like a small price to pay for much-needed improvement.
While Hayes and Komisarjevsky certainly are entitled to the presumption of innocence and a fair trial, the facts of the case aren’t even strenuously contested by the defense. The two men were arrested fleeing from the scene of the crime. Komisarjevsky has all but confessed to the crimes in discussing the case with at least one author. In April 2010, Hayes indicated to the presiding judge his desire to change his plea to guilty before being talked into changing his mind by his attorneys.
Yet despite all this, it has taken more than three years to deal with Hayes while Komisarjevsky’s trial has not even started. And, if the trials conclude as most everyone expects that they will, with guilty verdicts and death penalty sentences, justice is almost certain to stretch out even further. Michael Ross, the last man put to death by the state of Connecticut, spent 17 years on death row before his execution on May 13, 2005.
The Cheshire murders have been and continue to be a permanent stain on the state and our consciences. Judgment should be passed upon the accused criminals so that the delivery of justice can creep ever forward in this case.
Heath W. Fahle is a policy analyst and consultant based in Manchester. His background in political campaigns includes work for former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons and the Connecticut Republican Party. He also is the principal of Revolutionary Strategies LLC, a website design and consulting firm. Learn more at www.heathwfahle.com .