HBO’s ‘Cheshire’ Documents Savage Murders, Aftermath: TV

Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two young daughters were slaughtered in their Connecticut home while police apparently assembled -- and waited -- on the lawn outside.

That’s one among many maddening elements of HBO’s harrowing documentary “The Cheshire Murders.”

Debuting a day before the sixth anniversary of the July 23, 2007, triple homicide, this thoughtful, unsettling film examines the crime, its players and the systemic failures that ended in incomprehensible brutality.

The three Petits -- Jennifer, 11-year-old Michaela and 17-year-old Hayley -- died following a horrific home invasion. There was sexual violence and the two children were burned alive when the killers used gasoline to set them and their home ablaze.

Husband and father Dr. William Petit was bludgeoned and tied in the basement, the sole survivor.

Going beyond the well-known facts of the sensational crime, directors Kate Davis (“Southern Comfort”) and David Heilbroner present heartbreaking portraits of the victims and thorough accounts of killers Joshua Komisarjevsky and Steven Hayes.

Ordinary Sadist

While Hayes seems a standard-issue sadist (his own brother spoke out against him and here recalls once being forced by him to touch a hot stove), Komisarjevsky is, if possible, even more disturbing.

Sexually molested as a child, Komisarjevsky displayed severe emotional and mental problems during his teens.

His adoptive Evangelical parents refused psychiatric treatment, instead sending the teenager to a Christian camp and, eventually, an exorcist.

Komisarjevsky, 26 at the time of the killings, was on parole for a string of burglaries when he first saw Michaela and her mother at a grocery store. He followed them home and memorized the address for later.

At their trials, Komisarjevsky and Hayes attempted to lay blame on one another. Both were sentenced to death by lethal injection.

The film delves critically into the death-penalty process and its toll on victims’ families and public coffers. Appeals are automatic; the attorneys and the defendants have little say in the matter.

So, despite Hayes’ (denied) request for immediate execution, his and Komisarjevsky’s appeals process will cost an estimated $7 million and last more than a decade.

Still, while charting the judicial, familial, health care and police lapses that cleared the path to murder, the documentary cuts the killers no breaks.

“The Cheshire Murders” explains, but never excuses.

“The Cheshire Murders” airs Monday, July 22, on HBO at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: ****

What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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