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Long road ahead for Conn. home invasion survivor

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JOHN CHRISTOFFERSEN | January 27, 2012 09:35 PM EST | AP

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NEW HAVEN, Conn. — How does a man move on with his life after losing his wife and daughters to two ruthless home invaders who tormented, then killed them?

For more than four years, a nation both disgusted and captivated by a chilling crime in prototypical suburbia has wondered that. Only one man – Dr. William Petit, the sole survivor – can provide the answer.

On Friday, with the second killer sentenced to death and the book closed after two long, graphic trials, Petit gave a clue as to how he copes with pain he has been forced to revisit continually in court.

"My only hope is for justice to be served and to do my best to honor the lives of my family, who should all still be here to share their gifts and love with the world," Petit said Friday right before a judge sentenced Joshua Komisarjevsky, 31, to death.

"I hope to continue to honor my family," said Petit, who survived being beaten with a baseball bat and tied up. "I push forward in the hope that good will overcome evil, and feel the need to tell the world that evil lives among us and we need to rid the world of it."

The gruesome crime evoked comparisons to Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," about the brutal murders of a Kansas farmer and his family.

Komisarjevsky admitted in an audiotaped confession played for the jury in his trial late last year that he spotted Petit's wife, Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and their 11-year-old daughter, Michaela, at a supermarket and followed them to their house in Cheshire, a suburb of New Haven.

After going home and putting his own daughter to bed, he and Steven Hayes, now 48, returned to the Petit house in the middle of the night, while the family was sleeping, to rob it.

Dr. Petit was beaten, tied up and taken to the basement. Michaela and Hayley, 17, were tied to their beds. In the morning, Hayes took Jennifer to the bank to withdraw money, while Komisarjevsky stayed at the house.

It's believed that's when he sexually assaulted Michaela, the 11-year-old. Hayes was convicted of sexually assaulting the mother.

After Hayes arrived back at the house with the girls' mother, she was strangled. The pair doused the house and beds with gasoline, set it ablaze and left. The sisters, bound helplessly while flames and fumes rose around them, died of smoke inhalation.

Dr. Petit managed to escape the basement and hop, roll and crawl across a yard to a neighbor's house for help – too late to save his family.

"July 23, 2007, was our personal holocaust," Petit said Friday. "A holocaust caused by two who are completely evil and actually do not comprehend what they have done."

Petit called his wife a friend, confidant and wonderful mother. He noted that Hayley would be in medical school by now and that Michaela loved to cook and sing.

"I lost my family and my home," he said. "They were three special people. Your children are your jewels."

Petit said he has difficulty sleeping and trusting. Family gatherings are subdued, he said, with no one quite sure what to do or say.

Jennifer's sister, Cynthia Hawke-Renn, said via a video played in court that everyday items like gas, rope and bedposts conjure horrific memories.

"There is no escaping the horrors of that night," she said.

Petit's father, William Petit Sr., said his son is not the same person now as he was in the days when he was a happy husband and father.

"Not only did we lose Jennifer, Hayley and Michaela, we have lost the Bill that we knew, and it is heartbreaking daily to watch him," Petit said. "He puts on a brave face and tries to hide his anguish and despair by working hard."

Petit has found what he calls occasional moments of peace, dedicating himself to a charity named for his family that raises money for education, the chronically ill and those affected by violence; and by campaigning for tougher laws, including the death penalty.

He has admitted he contemplated suicide many times. But this month he became engaged to a woman who volunteered at foundation events.

Petit has maintained his composure in court through three trials, even as the defense referred to him and his family as the "Petit posse."

Komisarjevsky's lawyers had worked to spare him the death penalty by describing sexual abuse their client endured as a child. The jury and the judge – who had been subjected to grim evidence including pictures of charred beds, rope used to tie up the family and autopsy photos – were unmoved.

The crime led to the defeat of a bill to outlaw the death penalty in Connecticut and sparked tougher state laws for repeat offenders and home invasions.

"This is a terrible sentence, but it is in truth a sentence you wrote for yourself with deeds of unimaginable horror and savagery on July 23, 2007," Judge Jon Blue said.

Komisarjevsky conveyed a mixture of regret and insistence in court Friday, saying that he didn't intend for anyone to die, that he didn't rape Michaela and that he didn't start the fire.

"I wonder when the killing will end," he said of his death sentence.

He described regrets and the devastating consequences of his decisions – but blamed Hayes for the killings.

"I know my responsibilities, but what I cannot do is carry the responsibilities of the actions of another," Komisarjevsky said. "I did not want those innocent women to die."

The state's last execution in 2005 was the first since 1960, and Komisarjevsky and Hayes will likely spend years, if not decades, in prison.

William Petit and his relatives left the courtroom before Komisarjevsky spoke. The killer noted that "forgiveness is not mine to have" but said it wasn't the forgiveness of the victims' relatives he needed to find.

"I have to learn how to forgive my worst enemy – myself," he said.

Petit's sister, Hannah Chapman, said Komisarjevsky tried to blame others when he planned and carried out the crime, escalating it by attacking her brother and molesting her niece.

"Either way, he will be damned to hell for what he did," she said, "and that is where he belongs."