Like much of Connecticut, I followed a murder case in New Haven earlier this month, eagerly awaiting a verdict. The verdict came last week: Brandon Bellamy was guilty of two counts of murder, assault and firearms charges. Who? Brandon Bellamy. Not Steven Hayes. Brandon Bellamy was tried in New Haven at the same time–and the same courthouse–as Steven Hayes. Mr. Bellamy was charged (and now convicted) of shooting three men, killing two and wounding one, in April of 2008. The State asserted that the County St. shooting was the result of an earlier altercation with the victims downtown at the Gotham Citi nightclub.
I had personal connection to the Bellamy case: I was a prospective juror. For the first jury. In mid-September–at the beginning of the Hayes trial–I was called for jury duty in New Haven. After about fifteen minutes of voir dire by prosecutor Kevin Doyle and defense attorney Glen Conway, I was sent to the jury room while my fate was decided. About thirty seconds later I was called back into the courtroom and told I was dismissed, satisfying my jury service for the day. I looked the case up online when I got home and became interested in it.
I tried following the trial in the newspaper, mostly the Register. But I couldn’t. Every day the Register had the latest from the Steven Hayes case accompanied by a picture of Dr. William Petit (the survivor of his family’s murder) and often, his sister. When I left the New Haven J.D. after being excused from the Bellamy jury, I passed all the news vans and reporters on Church St. The Bellamy case received almost no mention in any of the papers. The only way I was able to find out about anything going on in the Bellamy case was by searching Google which occasionally turned up an article or a blog post. There were no live updates on the Register homepage or courtroom Twitter feeds by Register or Courant reporters. Yet, the Bellamy case was more interesting.
It was a foregone conclusion that Steven Hayes would be found guilty. He confessed to the murders and his lawyer even said in his opening that Mr. Hayes committed the crimes. He offered to plead guilty in exchange for life in prison. He only went to trial because it was a capital case and he was by law not allowed to plead guilty and voluntarily subject himself to the death penalty. The Bellamy case however had clear questions of fact. Mr. Bellamy did not admit to the crimes and professed his innocence. The survivor of the shooting could not identify Mr. Bellamy. Witnesses changed their stories. The first jury (the one I didn’t make) was wholly excused as Judge Alexander declared a mistrial before evidence began after one of the prosecutors became a potential witness when another witness recanted her story. Yet the only article that came out of the Bellamy trial was the verdict. The date on that article: Saturday November 13. The verdict came the day before–four days after penalty phase verdict for Steven Hayes. There were no articles in anticipation for a verdict in the Bellamy case during the days the jury was deliberating. Nor a video about a New Haven woman’s reaction to the Bellamy verdict, like this one about a Cheshire woman’s reaction to the Hayes verdict. Newspapers and TV channels report the news, but they also want to sell papers and deliver ratings. The reason for the constant coverage of the Hayes case has as much to do with who reads the articles as it does with who writes them.
What was different about the two cases? The major reason is that Steven Hayes faced the death penalty and Brandon Bellamy did not. New Haven had not had a capital case in a long time and most of the suspense was whether a New Haven jury would sentence a person to die. But there’s more. The death penalty aside, why was Hayes’ case (and his co-actor, Joshua Komisarjevsky) hyped up in the media? The crimes were terrible: a mother and her two daughters were brutally murdered in their home in Cheshire. The victims in the Bellamy case were shot on County St. in New Haven which is near Hillhouse High School. The victims were men. The victims and the defendant were black.
The attack of one’s home and harm to one’s family are among every person’s worst fears. The murders of the Petit family plays on both of those fears. But what about shootings in our city? Especially shootings that might have been the result of an altercation at a downtown nightclub that attracts people from outside the city (maybe not Gotham Citi, but suburbanites do go to the other bars and clubs downtown)? Part of the reason is the victims. Haley, Michaela and Jennifer Hawke-Petit were the All-American family of a doctor who lived in Cheshire, one of the more affluent suburbs in New Haven County. Christopher Duncan, William Burruss and Justin Davis were black men who were shot in a black neighborhood in the city. Still, in both cases people died.
While the race and socio-economic status of the victims is a major reason for the different characterizations of these crimes, location is probably the more significant factor. It’s the city versus the suburb. People expect violence to occur in a city, especially the people who say things like “gun wavin’ New Haven.” People do not expect violence to occur in a place like Cheshire. A place where people move to get away from the problems–and very likely the people–of cities. When there’s a murder in a town like Cheshire, it’s shocking–and scary–to all of the suburbanites who used to feel safe in their towns and would never feel safe in any neighborhood in New Haven, never mind County St. A murder in Cheshire is news. For a lot of people, murders in the cities are not news at all. Cases like Hayes’ and Komisarjevsky are the crimes of the century. In New Haven, which had 23 murders reported in 2008 and 12 reported in 2009, in the minds of suburbanites who think that there’s a murder every day in the city, people being gunned down on County St. is just business as usual and State v. Bellamy was just another murder case.
For the best and most-deserved criticism of the death penalty and the media covering the Hayes case, check out this video of Steven Hayes’ attorneys Tom Ullman and Patrick Culligan after the verdict. Fast-forward about seven minutes in for the real meat. Thanks to Gideon for posting it.