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Review: Sensational True-Crime Doc ‘The Cheshire Murders’ Asks All the Right Questions

Review: Sensational True-Crime Doc 'The Cheshire Murders' Asks All the Right Questions

“The Cheshire Murders,” airing on HBO July 22, is, in part,
a blow-by-blow account of the unspeakable 2007 Connecticut home invasion that
left a mother and her two daughters dead, and made Dr. William Petit his
state’s leading advocate for the death penalty (which was abolished there
nonetheless).

But as the film also indicates, no one needed to have died
at all.

Directed by Kate Davis (“Southern Comfort”) and David
Heilbroner, the documentary offers a thorough review of the crimes, and the
attendant controversy regarding the death penalty — both defendants offered to
plead guilty in exchange for life without parole; state prosecutors insisted on
a $7-million death-penalty trial.

The filmmakers also assembled a dream cast of interviewees:
The husband and parents of the slain Jennifer Hawke Petit; the brothers and
daughter of killer Steven Hayes; the family and even the ex-girlfriend of Josh
Komisarevsky, who details, among other things, aspects of Komisarevsky’s sexual
profile that prefigured the crime to come.

They didn’t get the police on camera, but it’s easy to see
why: Although not reported at the time, officers had already surrounded the
Petit house 30 minutes before the killers were arrested – during which time the
pair raped and murdered Jennifer Petit, and set the house on fire, killing the
daughters.

It’s a sensational film, in the true-crime sense, but one
that also benefits from the fact that everyone involved has his or her own
agenda: The people close to Komisarevsky and Hayes want to distance themselves
from the killers; the lawyers have pro-or anti-death penalty positions they
want to voice. Most significantly, the family of Jennifer Petit — whom one
would ordinarily expect to want to avoid filmmakers entirely — have an
unresolved issue with the Cheshire police. 

This is arguably the only documentary to examine the impact
of a death-penalty conviction as it unfolds, and one in which the perpetrators
admitted to the crimes involved.  It asks
all the right questions, while raising quite a few of its own. Does it help
people heal or re-victimize them — who gains, who loses?  What emotions drive our definition of
justice? And after four years and multiple trials, there lies the irony that
Komisarjevsky and Hayes will very likely never be put to death.

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