NEW HAVEN - The former girlfriend of convicted killer Joshua Komisarjevsky told a jury Monday that the strict and isolated religious upbringing the two shared was "toxic" and left them with little sense of morality outside the church.
Fran Hodges, who dated Komisarjevsky for two years as a teenager while living in New Hampshire and attending the Evangelical Bible Church, said the two bonded over their doubts about their religion and their status as outsiders in the small and restrictive community.
The couple met as teens, when Hodges was 13 and Komisarjevsky was 15, and began a relationship the following year.
Despite objections from Komisarjevsky's mother, they grew close, and even defied the church's teachings by having sex.
Hodges described their complicated bond, which involved supporting and encouraging each other's efforts to fall in line with the community's moral code, but also flouting it.
"I remember us trying to abstain, and sort of support each other in our faith because it was a source of tremendous guilt all the time. Daily, you'd feel like you were engaging with an evil drive ... you sort of hated yourself for it," she said.
"We were failing all the time, so knowing him was a comfort, because I felt not alone in that."
Komisarjevsky, who was convicted last month of murdering Cheshire resident Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two young daughters during a 2007 home invasion, is hoping to convince a jury to sentence him to life in prison and avoid the death penalty.
His accomplice, Steven Hayes, was convicted and sentenced to death last year.
Hodges, the defense's final witness, made direct eye contact with Komisarjevsky though much of her testimony and frequently became emotional, taking long pauses and wiping away tears.
Prompted by defense attorney Jeremiah Donovan, she detailed the church's emphasis on an imminent apocalypse, which filled her and other children with an overwhelming sense of fear. Elders often cited natural disasters or the "moral degradation" of society as evidence of the fruition of prophecies traced to the biblical book of Revelation, and warned parishioners that they should be prepared to die for their beliefs.
"When I was very young, I was very anxious about the inadequacy of my faith. My parents talked about martyrdom as though it were potentially in our future, so growing up, the prospect of that made me extremely concerned," she testified.
After repeated behavioral issues, Komisarjevsky was eventually expelled from the church at 17, effectively ending his relationship with Hodges.
Hodges left the Evangelical Bible Church in her late teens, and told jurors she has struggled since then with alcoholism, anorexia and other problems she said stemmed from having little concept of the secular world or its concepts of morality.
"Everything was built on this apocalyptic worldview. I had absolutely no moral conscience after leaving. I felt like I was damned to hell," she said. "You have no idea what morality looks like in an applicable, culturally acceptable way."
She added that other youths who grew up in the community have experienced problems similar to her own, and recalled three peers who had committed suicide, including "John," a well-liked youth who apologized to fellow church members after revealing he was gay.
"He reacted by apologizing and living in a constant cycle of repentance and self-hatred," said Hodges. "I think we all just felt trapped."
When asked by lead defense attorney what ultimately befell "John," Hodges said he "jumped out of a window." She then burst into tears.
Judge Jon C. Blue interrupted the questioning and called a brief recess to allow Hodges to compose herself.
On cross-examination, lead prosecutor Michael Dearington asked Hodges whether she felt the environment she had grown up in predisposed young church members to criminal activity as teenagers or adults.
Hodges replied that, while she had never had trouble with the law, she felt the lack of moral purpose she felt after leaving the church could have caused others to fall into a life of crime.
"There was a kind of moral ambiguity to everything. People who were drawn to me were morally lacking in pretty significant ways because my judgment was ... it was completely beyond me to make moral policy," she said.
Dearington pressed further, asking whether she ever had any trouble distinguishing what was right and wrong in the eyes of the law.
"When it comes to taking someone's life, you had no difficulty in knowing that was against the law?"
"Certainly not," Hodges said.
On redirect, Donovan asked Hodges why she had decided to testify in court, since the subpoena she was served only required her to speak to Dr. Leslie Lebowitz, a psychoanalyst who performed a detailed report on Komisarjevsky and had testified earlier in the day.
She replied that she felt her upbringing had left her devoid of a moral compass and made her prone to thrill-seeking and recklessness, and that she wanted the jury to understand that her upbringing and and Komisarjevsky's were far from normal.
"My inner life has not been easy, and I felt that it was important - if there's anything to that," she said.
Dearington countered by asking whether all members of the Evangelical Bible Church had experienced the same effects, or whether some had found value in its teachings and rules.
"I'm not implying that Christianity is not beneficial to people," she said. "The community that I experienced was on the extreme fringes of Christianity, and the dynamic in that community, I would say, is not healthy, is not productive, and it was harmful. It was harmful to me."
Lebowitz, who had detailed much of her report in testimony earlier in the penalty phase of the trial on Nov. 7, repeated her conclusions on the possible effects of the series of childhood rapes Komisarjevsky endured at the hands of an older foster child living in the home. She also testified that his mother's failure to properly respond to the signs of the abuse might be traced to similar trauma she had suffered as a child.
Komisarjevsky was largely "shut down" and distrustful about being interviewed, she testified, and was likely still deeply affected by his series of childhood traumas, which combined to create a "toxic stew" that "boiled over" when he and Hayes committed the home invasion and subsequent murders.
"I think he was a pretty impaired person," Lebowitz said.
After testimony concluded, Judge Jon C. Blue heard arguments on two motions filed by attorneys.
Defense attorneys attempted to strike from the record a statement given by attorneys in 2002 during hearings for a series of home burglaries committed by Komisarjevsky, in which Komisarjevsky is called a "predator." Komisarjevsky ultimately served approximately half of the nine-year sentence he received for the burglaries.
Blue, however, ruled to allow the statement, recalling that it had been entered as evidence in Hayes' trial.
A separate motion filed by prosecutors to present Komisarjevsky's prison medical records is still pending. Donovan fought the move, saying it would violate Komisarjevsky's Fifth Amendment rights, since he had not been read Miranda rights before submitting to prison-mandated evaluations, and possibly clash with his right to privacy under the Health Insurance Portablity and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and state law.
Donovan was unable to cite the specific state statute he believed would be violated, and Blue granted him a recess until Tuesday to conduct the proper research.
The hearing will continue this morning, after which the defense is expected to rest its case.