“Good evening. The first clue anyone had was the woman at the bank; she came to the window to withdraw $15,000. Then in a calm manner, she told the teller that men were holding her family hostage in their nice suburban home. Tonight, a Connecticut jury has done something very rare. They’ve handed out the death penalty for one of two men charged in one of the worst home invasions in memory. That woman at the bank was later murdered back at her home. So were her two daughters. Only her husband lived after a savage beating.”

– Opening lines from November 8, 2010 broadcast of NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams in a segment titled “Killer at Peace with Death Penalty Verdict, Says DA”

The 2007 Cheshire home invasion Brian Williams spoke of involved the brutal torture, rape and killing of Jennifer Hawke-Petit, Hayley Petit (17) and Michaela Petit (11) by two men, including Steven Hayes who was sentenced to die this week. The crime and the resulting criminal court proceedings have received a fair amount of national news coverage as demonstrated above and have been especially heavily reported on here in Connecticut as the tragedy occurred in our own backyard. The crimes were committed approximately eight miles from where I and my family live, but the case hit even closer to home on Monday morning.

I work in an unpredictable field and can honestly say that three and a half years in, I have not had two identical days on the job. But some days journey beyond unpredictable into the unbelievable and November 8, 2010 was that kind of day. Through a series of highly improbable circumstances, I found myself in the cell block of the New Haven District Courthouse Monday morning with the same Steven Hayes that would later headline the evening’s national news.

I had been escorted into the holding cell area by an attorney and was told I would have to wait to complete my affairs, when I looked up and locked eyes for a brief moment with an inmate that seemed strangely familiar. The man was pacing in a holding room less than ten feet from me and I nodded in his direction as an acknowledgment of his presence and a sign of basic male respect. He faintly narrowed his eyes in receipt of my gesture, but his response was not one of contempt as much as it seemed to be one of bewilderment. As if he had not received so much as a non-threatening glance in some time.

I knew from entering the Court earlier in the day and walking past a dozen local and national news trucks that a jury was deliberating this day on whether Steven Hayes’ October 2010 conviction of six counts of capital felony charges warranted execution. I also knew from a previous visit to this same Court holding cell area, which room was designated for holding Mr. Hayes when he was not present in the Court room and this man was occupying that room. Instinctively, I knew it was Hayes, but could not be certain as the appearance of the man before me did not exactly match the mug shot of the completely bald and overweight criminal that has been so widely circulated in the press. The man before me had unkempt dark hair growing from the sides of his head and appeared much thinner and unhealthy than the photo of Hayes we have all seen in these parts. I wanted to ask one of the correctional officers if this was indeed the notorious Hayes, but thought better of it as the door to the unidentified inmate’s door was open and I was easily within earshot of the man.

While waiting for further instruction from the Correctional Officers about how to proceed with my own task, I found myself convinced the crazed man nervously pacing back and forth in the tiny room must be the convicted killer. He had a bestial quality about him; specifically striking were his cold and beady eyes that seemed to dart between the area’s inhabitants and yet simultaneously presented as distantly focused on heavy and sorrowful thoughts far from his current material reality. I felt pity for the man as it was apparent his spirit was not well.

My own thoughts drifted briefly and I thought of our new friend Robbie James of the Higher Point Christ Fellowship in the Northeast Denver area. Robbie was present at the Mission Alive Theology Lab last month and is the type of guy that you decide you like before you even get a chance to speak with him. My intuition was confirmed when shortly after his arrival, Robbie asked if he could borrow a copy of The Message from our table and I granted him permission but noted it was a only a copy of the New Testament. Robbie just smiled and replied, “That’s okay. I like the New Testament. It’s in my top two Testaments.” Robbie then went on to share that practicing the presence of the Mission of God begins by consistently being in an intimate relationship with the Father and being attuned and attentive to the Holy Spirit. Robbie said that practically he asks as he comes into each place, “Father, what are you already doing here?” Followed by the question, “Father, what have you authorized me to do here?”

I asked God what he was doing here and became distinctly aware that as I could not explain how or why my life path was crossing with the path of Steven Hayes at this moment, that perhaps God had ordered my steps in this direction on this day for a reason. In asking what I was authorized to do, I felt compelled to pray peace into this man’s life and found myself attempting to literally breathe the Spirit in His direction. I prayed that whatever he was being haunted by in the moment, that he might be able to experience a wave of peace, a release from the grip of anxiety as he awaited his fate. I wanted to speak to him, or perhaps to even physically touch him, but thought either of those actions were sure to get me kicked out of the Courthouse.

It was then that a Correctional Officer invited me to sit and pointed to a chair just outside the door of the inmate’s room. I suppose I should have felt fear, but instead readily accepted my seat and continued my prayer. The atmosphere reminded me of the film Dead Man Walking and of my interaction in 2002 with Sister Helen Prejean, the nun on whom the story is based, which forevermore changed my thoughts on capital punishment.

The Correctional Officer sat across from me looking directly at the prisoner and confirmed that the inmate was indeed Steven Hayes. I now fully realized that only a wall separated me from the killer, as he paced less than a yard away at times. I could see his reflection in a glass pane across from me and found myself studying him. Despite the awful atrocities that the man has committed, he appeared to be consumed with despair and perhaps remorse and I found myself wanting him to find forgiveness. Yet, feet from the man, I asked myself, would I die for him? Would I trade places with him if it meant saving him?

I thought of my beautiful family. Of Shepard, who at fifteen months gives Howard Dean-like squeals of delight when he sees a cookie or ice cream cone and wants to follow me wherever I go, including to work each morning. Of Clara, who proudly reported to strangers last weekend while visiting a children’s museum that “me and my dad, we’re two peas in a pod.” Of my strong and amazingly beautiful wife Jaime, who is my anchor and motivates me daily by the way she picks up her cross and yet still shares her contagious joy by laughing so genuinely that she inspires everyone to laugh along with her. Of our unborn child, whose own blessings we are just beginning to experience through fervent kicks from the womb. And quickly and resoundingly I knew that I would not die for this man Steven Hayes. Yet, the mind blowing truth is Christ did.

I was again struck by the amazing grace of our Lord and Savior. I was so dumbfounded for a moment that I barely registered the presence of four Correctional Officers who congregated to escort Hayes back to Court. Eventually another man, sharply dressed, referred to later by a Correctional Officer as the “Boss” entered the room. His pointed confidence was only briefly deterred when he questioned who I was, rightfully questioning the presence of the only non-officer to share this moment. A moment that I realized shortly thereafter, was the last moment Hayes had before learning that he would be executed by the State of Connecticut. Hayes walked inches in front of me as he was taken back into the Court to face his sentence and Dr. Petit, the man whose family he killed.

The experience of being in one’s presence while their fate is being decided by others, and knowing you are free to leave, is extremely powerful and humbling. And thus, in a strange way, I felt grateful to have been there. I could not however escape the weight of the encounter which affected the remainder of my day. Especially so, as I considered the fact that perhaps I had just participated in some level in a very real spiritual battle and hoped that I had acted as an acceptable proxy for the Kingdom of God. Therefore, I found solace in news that perhaps others found disturbing when I learned later that Hayes had reported after the sentencing that he felt “at peace” with the death penalty decision.

Comments
  1. April says:

    One of your best pieces.
    I’m becoming more of a believer in the power of prayer. This is one that you should save, even if you eventually discard this blog. Something to show your children when they’re grown enough to understand. Proximity to something of that historical magnitude doesn’t happen often, and though the events are tragic the thought associated – particularly that Christ died for this man – is liberating. That stirs something in the soul. I’m glad you chose to pray for his peace. It is beautiful that God can love his children, even those with a monster within.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Mary says:

    Josh, again, amazing! You are so right in praying for this man. I had similar thoughts the day Hayes was convicted. God is merciful and He alone knows our hearts. I pray for both killers that they turn their hearts to the Lord and that they find Peace in Christ. I also continue to pray for the Petit family. I can’t not even fathom what Dr.Petit has gone through or what he continues to go through. It was such a heinous & evil crime! I pray for him to have peace as well…and maybe one day forgiveness.
    I am interested in the story of your meeting Sister Prejean.

  3. Randy Fisher says:

    A very interesting day at work indeed. You sat with someone who really crossed the line with his future. Feeling at peace leads to the feeling that he had regret and remorse for his actions. I would think that even though we know he is redeemable to God the question remains is whether or not “HE” feels that what he did is redeemable. God works in mysterious ways and will no doubt reveal himself to all before it is too late.

  4. Miranda says:

    I feel there is so many things to be said after such an awe inspiring story. However, I wouldn’t know where to begin and how long it would last. Therefore, I decided to tell you my most predominant thought occurring,which is…I love you, and always will. ♥

  5. Joshua Fisher says:

    Sharon Naish:
    thank you for sharing this with us josh. God had blessed you with the gift of writing and the ability to have love for others.

    Robert Hicinbothem :
    Wow! Amazing story, Josh. And beautifully written. Thank you.

    Carlos Texidor:
    amazing!

    Jason Stewart:
    Well written. What an experience and incredible juxtaposition to find yourself in. I agree, a blessing from God to experience. I didn’t even know you had this blog. I’ll try and tune in more often, it made you feel not so far away (I also enjoyed your Novembeard installment, I might try it but PT conferences are in November and wearing a shirt and tie makes the dreaded itch pretty much unbearable)

    Lana Miller:
    That’s really amazing! I’m glad you wrote this because I have had a broken heart for this story. Not just for the family that was killed but for these two men. I seem to always wonder who will be Jesus to these kind of people. I’m glad …God put you there that day.
    I felt like the news made it seem as if he was uncaring about his sentence but I just knew that couldn’t be.
    I kept meaning to ask Jaime how close this was to you guys. Very close…

    Lisa Fisher:
    wow, as I sit here with tears in my eyes after reading this I can’t help but thank God for what a strong,loving and kindhearted Christian man that you are. I love you. Mom

    • Joshua Fisher says:

      Thank you April, I would love to hear more about your thoughts on prayer.

      Mary, I will definitely tell you about Sister Prejean next time I see you, please remind me if I forget. Amazing woman and servant of God.

      Dad and Randa, I love you guys! Thanks for reading and sharing your comments.

  6. Joshua Brainard says:

    Very powerful. Thanks for sharing!

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