Defending The Defender

The follwing column appeared in The Danbury News Times Sunday November 14, 2010.

You think you have a tough job? Try being Thomas Ullman. Ullman has spent the last three years defending Steven Hayes. After unsuccessfully defending Hayes at trial, Ullman, a public defender, spent the last few weeks trying to convince a New Haven jury that his client’s life should be spared. The jury, this week, disagreed and said that the death penalty is the appropriate punishment for Hayes, the first of two defendants being tried for the gruesome murder of Jennifer Hawke Petit and her two daughters, Hayley and Michaela.

Thomas Ullman

Our system works best when both sides are represented by skilled advocates, a fair and impartial judge presiding and jury deciding. Hayes’ defense team was a rather skilled and dogged one. Nonetheless, this case was a rather one-sided affair. First, there is the utter depravity of the allegation—the family was tortured for seven hours, the mother and her eleven-year daughter both sexually abused, and then the house set ablaze. Then, there was the sheer volume and quality of the evidence. The father, Dr. William Petit Jr., miraculously survived and was able to testify convincingly and sympathetically as an eyewitness to the graphic details.  And Hayes confessed.

It shouldn’t matter, but in reality, Ullman’s task was also made more difficult by the stark contrast in the background of his client and his victims.  The Petit family was that of a well-known doctor, a leading endocrinologist, his beautiful 48-year-old wife, Jennifer, who directed the health center at the Cheshire Academy. Their 17-year-old daughter Hayley was en route to Dartmouth.  And 11-year-old Michaela was entering sixth grade. Hayes, on the other hand, was in and out of jails since 1980, was already on parole for a 2003 burglary, a parole he had already violated once before. The sheer innocence of these harmless creatures, the torture imposed upon them, all collided to create a maelstrom of international media coverage.

The Petit Family

It was pretty lonely in Ullman’s corner. Hardly a soul was rooting for him to win. Not even Hayes. Asked how Hayes reacted to the death sentence reached by the jury last week, Ullman told CNN Hayes was happy with the verdict. “Suicide by State,” was how he said his client described the verdict. “If he can’t do it to himself, he’s happy the State will do it,” Ullman said. Hayes has been attempting to commit suicide for much of the time he has been incarcerated, according to his lawyer.

Steven Hayes

Ullman’s defense of Hayes will make him unpopular forever, wherever he goes. It’s wrong, but people will connect him with the barbaric acts of his client, rather than the indispensable constitutional rights he upholds. It can take a toll on an attorney, personally and professionally. As the hours approached the execution of Michael Ross, the last person to be executed in Connecticut, his lawyer, T.R. Paulding, saw his law license threatened by a federal judge, who ordered Paulding to reconsider his representation of Ross and Ross’ desire to die, questioning whether Ross was truly stable enough to opt for execution.

The next time you think you have it tough at work, think of Thomas Ullman. He has it tougher.
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One response to “Defending The Defender

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