By Jef Dinsmore on Jul 24, 2013 to Documentaries


Doc-logoOverview: From the provided HBO press release – HBO, in conjunction with the sixth anniversary of the murders, takes viewers behind the scenes of the crimes that rocked Cheshire, Connecticut from the morning of the crime through two death-penalty trials five years later. Directed and produced by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner (who were behind HBO’s Emmy®-winning JOCKEY), THE CHESHIRE MURDERS is a universal human tale of the search for justice in the face of a crime that seemed to have permanently upended small-town life. This multi-layered documentary features exclusive interviews with victims’ and perpetrators’ friends and families, as well as attorneys, journalists and mental-health professionals involved in the case. Revealing the untold life stories of the perpetrators, as well as detailing failures of police and the parole system to prevent this tragedy, the film probes the deep impact of the crime and explores what it means to deliver justice in the wake of such loss.


Expectations: There is quite a bit more to the press release about this documentary but I decided not to read it or post it. The main reason, and a common one I have cited before, is to keep the plot points of the piece more of a surprise. It is enough to know that this was a violent and deadly crime that rocked a small town and opened great debate in the state court system. But dodging those facts and making this a murder mystery that needs unfolding is not the only reason to watch it.

Now, I am not a huge fan of crime procedurals on TV, either the fictional or non-fictional kind. That is mainly, because the inundation of the genre on the screen has tired me of them. Awaiting the premiere of this particular film I knew it was about a murder scene and case and yet it was one of the top three documentaries I was eager for in this summer series. Why was I being intrigued by this particular crime story?

The reason for it is because I have simply, through the years, learned to trust the choices of Sheila Nevins and HBO Documentary Films. I’m figuring that of all the crime stories that could be told that this one must be truly gripping and the film must be well crafted or it would not be airing on HBO. Yes, I have that much adoration of the quality programming I pay for.

The next 118 minutes are going to be quite interesting I think.


Gut Reaction: Readers, THE CHESHIRE MURDERS is a gripping piece. Nothing in this documentary is a bit of wasted film stock. Not one snippet of dialogue is useless banter. From the opening moments, highlighting some of the harrowing moments of this crime, to the closing images, of what the crime scene has turned into since, your attention is devoted to the screen. What lies between those two scenes is an in-depth work detailing everything except graphic images from a confiscated cell phone.

Again, I am ignoring some particulars that I will finally share. Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky broke into the family home of Dr. William Petit, his wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit and their daughters, Michaela, 11, and Hayley, 17. Dr. Petit was beaten and tied to a pole in the basement. The three women were bound in their bedrooms while the men ransacked the house. The brutal ordeal continued throughout the morning, ending with rape, arson and a horrific triple homicide. Graphic talk throughout goes into more gruesome detail about what went down alongside police photos of the scene and at one point the actual voice recorded police record of one of the suspects. After the ‘how’ is explained they ‘why’ portion of the piece kicks in.

A through documentation of the perpetrators life history plays out in the middle section of the film. Very rarely in such crime stories are families and friends of the criminals featured and interviewed. A complete composite of the personality and rationale of these murderers comes forth and proves a very interesting angle in the documentary. I don’t wish to slight the grieving family’s side of the equation but they are filled with all the questions and emotions that you would expect in such a horrible situation.

Finally, the work turns to examining the justice process involved. By this point a viewer would think that it would be a pretty cut and dry decision…and we wrap up the film with a sense of closure for the family. But it then, turns into a debate over the death penalty. Moments back and forth stating that life in solitary is a horrible way to live the rest of your life versus they don’t have the right to live after what they’ve done really make you ponder the issue in light of the crime we relive here. Though ghastly at times, this documentary spells out this process from happy family in a happy town to horrible crime, followed by investigation, trial, sentencing and closure so well that I think it is a documentary not to be missed.

In Conclusion: Once again I have intentionally omitted some of the details of this documentary as to not spoil all the elements that comprise this crime story. I haven’t gone in detail of some of the people interviewed because I think what they say about this incident help make a gripping story for the viewer. There are also key points about the day of the crime and what role a local bank and the Cheshire Police had in this incident that I leave for the viewer to learn for themselves. The documentary looks at every angle of the process; it sounds complex but is told so well that it all falls into place. There are some questions raised that still go unanswered to this day which also raises interest in this film so, I hope you take in THE CHESHIRE MURDERS because you will be seeing one of the best crime procedurals on TV because that is what you expect form HBO.

HBO airdates are 07.22 at 2:30am, 7.25 at 12:30pm, 07.28 at 11:30am, 07.30 at 9:00am, 08.03 at 2:00pm and 08.06 at 4:00pm. It airs on HBO2 on 07.24 at 8:00pm, 07.29 at 12:30pm and 11:30pm, 08.18 at 9:55am and 08.27 at 11:45am. All time are Eastern time. It also appears on HBOGo.

  • JMO

    Good for Hawke-Petit’s sister, Cynthia Hawke-Renn for standing up to
    the police department. First off, let me say that I respect and honor
    our police officers across this great nation. They risk their lives
    every single day in efforts to keep our community safe.

    there are instances where the police take too long to respond to a
    situation. I understand the police officers need to protect themselves
    in a situation and how they do that is by getting as much information as
    humanly possible about the situation. I have heard numerous 911 calls
    in the past and how the callers are questioned to death by a 911
    operator, even when it is important for that caller to remain silent as
    to protect his/her own life so this way they don’t tip off a perpetrator
    as to their exact location. The 911 operators don’t seem to have any
    regard for the callers in that aspect.

    It seems the
    police officers are trained in the same way when they arrive on the
    seen. They take a lot of time to assess the situation, again, I assume
    to protect themselves.

    While I totally understand the
    need for a police officer to protect themselves (my grandfather was a
    police officer) at some point , police officers need to be ready to
    stand up and do their job , even without information on the scenario.
    You cannot always be briefed in everything in life. You got to be ready
    when it counts. This is why they get the training they receive in the
    police academy. Most 911 situations require IMMEDIATE police or
    ambulatory help. This is the job they are being PAID to do. How would
    they feel to be raped, murdered and set on fire, the whole time the
    police are outside just watching?

    So I understand
    Cynthia’s pain, especially when she had to watch LE pat themselves on
    the back about the great job they did at a press conference. How can
    they give themselves so much credit like that, when all the victims
    died? All they did was stand outside and wait for the perps to come
    out. I hate to say it, but I think I would have had more bravery than
    these police had. Had I heard screaming in someones house, I probably
    would have ran in there to help and I don’t even have guns! and I’m just
    your everyday citizen. I couldn’t just sit outside and do nothing, it would be very hard for me.

    • Joe blow

      You are correct. The police action in this case was disgraceful, bordering on the cowardly. The other lesson is that you need to have at least one gun in your house, and everyone needs to know where it is and how to use it. This unarmed family was slaughtered and defiled, and relied on the police to save them. The police, instead, followed “protocol,” and formed a perimeter around the house while the 11 year old was raped, and all three of the females murdered. The father was reduced to saving his own skin after listening to the screams of his loved ones upstairs. He’ll have to live with that. Get a gun and keep it handy.

  • Susan Jenkins

    It’s very hard to follow as the timeline seems to jump all over the place throughout this documentary; a more accurate chronological timeline would have been better. And it seemed that there was a lot more time devoted to the murderers than the victims-I didn’t feel like I knew who the Petit family was.

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