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Hayes Trial Pits Bloggers Against the Defenders

In this July 23, 2007 file photo, law enforcement personnel work outside the home of Dr. William Petit Jr., in Cheshire, Conn. Intruders broke into the home and held the family hostage for several hours before setting the house on fire. Dr. Petit was severely beaten, and his wife and two daughters were killed. (Associated Press)

I read the early reports from the Hayes murder trial as the evidence began. Summoning immense personal strength, Dr. Petit took the stand and described the early horror that he and his family endured. It was the type of testimony that incites the passions of a jury. Any reasonable person listening to that would be filled with a mix of feelings, from revulsion for the perpetrators to sympathy and compassion for what this man and his family endured.

Public Defender, Thomas Ullman, wisely decided to ask no questions. When I taught trial practice at Quinnipiac Law School the first tenet of cross examination I passed on to my students was to only ask questions if there was something to gain. Like any competent trial attorney the best examination of this victim was none at all.

I have known Tom Ullman for many years. He is a dedicated and skilled trial attorney. Had he chosen to go into private practice he would have earned significantly more that what the state pays. He believes in the importance of providing even the most seemingly guilty person with a vigorous defense.

In this Sept. 19, 2007 file photo, Dr. William Petit Jr., enters a ceremony honoring his late wife and two daughters at Cheshire high school in Cheshire, Conn. (Associated Press)

Sometime ago I began to browse the blog comments that follow stories of courtroom drama. It began out of curiosity in a notorious homicide case I was defending. It was an eye opener; not for the information it conveyed. Rather, it presented an opportunity to gauge the visceral reaction of the vocal public. I realized that these voices do not represent the attitudes of the majority of readers. It takes a certain type of person to feel the need to express their feelings like some color commentator covering a Yankee game. I get it. My blog represents another version of the same need to express. What is troubling is the venom with which so many anonymous writers strike out.

Anyone educated in an American high school has read To Kill a Mockingbird, the story of country lawyer Atticus Finch, who sacrificed his reputation, law practice and family’s safety to defend an unpopular rape case [thank you to the several readers who pointed out my faulty recollection. In the original post, I mistakenly noted that Finch was defending a murderer. Sorry, it’s been nearly 50 years since I took Freshman English]. Finch did not advocate for the reprehensable allegation he was attempting to defend. Like Atticus Finch, lawyers like Tom Ullman are not endorsers of violent crime. These lawyers truly believe in the concept of due process. Unfortunately, in Tom Ullman’s case, his dedication to the concept of justice has led to him being vilified by the anonymous critics who read blurbs of trial testimony and then turn to their computers to rage against the system, and Ullman in particular, because he is endeavoring to do his job.

Most of these bloggers, whose numbers are growing significantly, blame Ullman for the time the case has taken to come to trial. In some sense these people appear to think that there was some malevolent purpose the lawyer had elected to serve to further torture this unfortunate survivor. The attitudes displayed are no different than the barbs faceless members of avenging lynch mobs spewed when they decided to pursue vigilante justice.

Hayes and his companion will probably be convicted and perhaps even eventually executed. If we are going to continue to permit the state to kill convicted murderers we must understand that the process must take time to ensure that we get it right. I am not saying that this case could not have been reached sooner. Lawyers don’t set these trial schedules, judges do. Those same judges are also mindful of the pain that the victims and their families suffer.

If and when Hayes is convicted and punished, Tom Ullman will be able to sleep nights knowing that he gave Hayes every opportunity that the Framers of our Constitution determined that Hayes deserved. If Hayes is convicted his detractors will say that he gave no such chance to his hapless victims. That does not justify abandoning our sense of fairness and reacting on the same visceral, animal level. So continue to be repelled by the senseless violence of this crime, but let the system do its job.

Rich Meehan is a senior partner in the law firm of Meehan, Meehan & Gavin, LLP, Bridgeport, Conn. For more information on Rich or his firm go to www.meehanlaw.com or www.ctdentalmalpracticelawyer.com, or e-mail Rich at rtm@meehanlaw.com

Rich Meehan