Did Police Negligence in Cheshire, CT Contribute To These Tragic Murders? – Part Two of Two

In my previous post on this story, I discussed the horrific events surrounding the murders of the wife and two daughters of Dr. William Petit, in the 2007 Cheshire, Connecticut home invasion murders. I’ll now discuss why I believe there is a distinct possibility that the Cheshire Connecticut Police Department may possibly be exposed to a civil liability suit for negligence and wrongful death, owing to the police department’s failure to act in a reasonable or timely manner to rescue the Petit family.

To begin with, a (very) quick review of the tort of wrongful death: As I explain on my website page dealing with wrongful death, this is a rather broad legal term that is used to describe a situation where the death of a person would not have taken place under the circumstances that it did, except for some negligence that occurred on the part of another party. The circumstances surrounding a “wrongful death” can be varied: A loved one might have died as a result of medical negligence, a motor vehicle accident, a construction injury, or a defective product. A wrongful death suit is usually brought by a family member or a representative of the deceased victim’s estate. (If such a suit were brought here, the party filing the suit and seeking damages would be the representative(s) of the estate(s) of Dr. Petit’s wife and two daughters. A wrongful death suit seeks the recovery of damages for the surviving family’s or the estate’s benefit as a result of the victim’s death.)

Were such a suit brought in this case, the plaintiff(s) would have to show that, but for the Cheshire Police Department’s failure to intervene in a timely manner to rescue Dr. Petit’s family, Mrs. Petit and Dr. Petit’s two daughters would not likely have perished. This could either be a daunting task, or a fairly easy one, and the success or failure of such a suit would likely come down to expert testimony. The plaintiff(s) would need to produce experts in the field of law enforcement and hostage situations, to show that the Cheshire Police Department’s failure to take any action other than to place themselves outside the Petit home, for almost 35 minutes, was unreasonable given the specific circumstances present.

I do not have immediate access to the formal police report regarding this matter, but, from what I have been able to uncover from published reports, the Cheshire Police Department captain commanding this response ordered his men to stand down and take no rescue measures for almost 35 minutes from the time they were first informed of this situation by the bank manager where Mrs. Petit had first pleaded for help. Police did not approach the house in any manner, other than to establish a perimeter. From what I am aware of at this writing, neither did Cheshire police officials alert the Connecticut State Police, the Cheshire Fire Department, or rescue/EMS personnel. During that entire time, Mrs. Petit and her two daughters were being savagely terrorized, sexually assaulted, strangled, doused with gasoline and murdered.

Recently, at the criminal trial of the two animals who are charged with these murders (and who, it is reported, previously offered to plead guilty if they could be spared the death penalty,) a Cheshire Police Department official explained his Department’s failure to intervene more forcefully as follows: “We had no reason to believe the family was in any immediate danger.” Frankly, given what I know of this incident to date, and the circumstances that were present on that scene, as a Massachusetts wrongful death attorney, I find this statement outrageous.

Legally, if a claim for wrongful death were brought in this case, the plaintiff would have to prove (to a likely standard of ‘clear and convincing evidence’) that Cheshire police officials acted unreasonably given the circumstances that were present. It would not have to be proven that police officials specifically knew that the Petit family was being beaten and murdered while they remained stationary outside (and I don’t infer here that police officials did know this.) All that would have to be shown, is that under these circumstances, it was unreasonable and negligent of police to:

a) Take no intervening rescue action of their own b) Make no efforts to establish phone or loudspeaker contact with the captors inside the house c) Fail to alert or call in the Connecticut State Police or SWAT teams d) Fail to notify or call in the Cheshire Fire Department, EMS or ambulance personnel

To successfully prove this, would involve a “battle of the experts”: The plaintiff(s) would have to produce experts in the field of law enforcement, hostage takings and police crisis management, to persuasively testify that the actions of the Cheshire Police Department deviated from the normal and customary police response that was called for in the type of situation as was presented that horrific day in 2007. The defense, too, would produce its own experts to testify that under the circumstances presented, police officials were not unreasonable in taking – and more importantly, failing to take – the actions they did. As always in such a case, the jury would consider this opposing testimony, along with other evidence in the form of treatises and training manuals from various local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, on the subject of hostage-taking. In the end, the jury would have to weigh all the competing evidence and testimony, and answer a question that in sum, would separately ask as follows:

• “Was the Cheshire Police Department negligent in its actions surrounding this incident?
• “Were the actions of the Cheshire Police Department reasonable under these circumstances?”
• “Did the Cheshire Connecticut Police Department (and any named officials within that Department) deviate from standard or recommended hostage rescue protocol in this situation?”

My questions surrounding the Cheshire Connecticut Police Department’s actions (or inactions) in this matter isn’t a broadside against police in general. I know many fine and talented police officers and law enforcement officials, and in the vast majority of crisis situations, they are the ones who save the day. What really disturbs me about this case, is not only the response of the police commanders on that day, but the present response of the Town of Cheshire’s attorneys. Notwithstanding the adversarial nature of our court system, which as a practicing attorney I respect, there occasionally comes a time to admit when your client is wrong, offer to make any reasonable amends that you can, and sleep at night knowing that you did the morally correct thing. If I were legal counsel for the town of Cheshire, and I believed that police officials acted negligently in this case, my advice would be as follows:

The Department and the Town has a choice: You can go into court and claim that police did nothing wrong here, and make outlandish, literally unbelievable statements such as “We didn’t believe this family was in any immediate danger.” You can then squirm in shame, and look like fools when testimony comes out as to what was being done to Dr. Petit’s family while the town’s police Department waited outside, doing nothing. Or, you can avoid an ugly, tortuous lawsuit by admitting that mistakes were made here; offer sincere apologies to Dr. Petit, offer him reasonable damages under a confidentiality clause, and promise to revamp how such situations are responded to in the future. I could not witness the devastation that resulted to Dr. Petit’s family, and do anything else. Apparently, the attorney for the Town of Cheshire felt it more appropriate to instruct police officials at the criminal trial of the defendants, to offer up “We didn’t believe this family was in any immediate danger.” This attorney may well know facts that I, and the media, have not yet uncovered. Then again, maybe we sleep differently at night.

This would be a tough, and interesting, case to try. If I practiced law in Connecticut, I wouldn’t mind taking this case.