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My Turn: The justice system isn’t perfect; a Contoocook murder case shows why

Several years ago, on a hot July night, a little girl named Elizabeth Knapp was raped and murdered in Contoocook. Her mother’s live-in boyfriend, Richard Buchanan, was charged. As a public defender, I was assigned to represent him. Although Buchanan was charged with first-degree murder, I was very much aware that his charge could be upgraded to capital murder because in New Hampshire murder in the course of a sexual assault can be punishable by death.

The evidence against Buchanan seemed overwhelming. The little girl was raped and murdered just feet away from her mother’s bedroom. She was sleeping virtually inches away from her sister. It was a very small apartment. There was clutter all over the floor. It seemed impossible that a stranger could have entered the home and not wakened anyone. There were no signs of forced entry. And to make matters worse, after hours of police interrogation, Elizabeth’s mother told the police that she, in fact, witnessed Buchanan rape and strangle Elizabeth.

I assumed my client was guilty. How could he not be?

However, Richard Buchanan was innocent. Thankfully the person who raped and murdered Elizabeth had not worn a condom, and the true killer’s semen was collected from Elizabeth’s body. DNA tests proved that Buchanan was not the assailant. The charges against him were dropped.

Amid the debate about repealing the death penalty in New Hampshire, some people have said that innocent people can’t be convicted in New Hampshire. It may happen in other places, but not here. Somehow New Hampshire is exceptional. But my personal experience tells me that New Hampshire is not exceptional and an innocent person could be convicted and even executed here for a crime he did not commit.

Richard Buchanan was eventually freed, but I don’t take much comfort in that. We are still capable of making grave errors. Movies and TV shows create an illusion that clever detectives can always find conclusive evidence or that only guilty people confess to crimes or that eye witnesses are always infallible. This is just not true.

In Buchanan’s case, he was lucky that the real assailant had not used a condom. If he had, no semen would have been transferred onto Elizabeth’s body, and no DNA would have been found to prove his innocence. How likely would Buchanan have been to be convicted of a rape and murder he didn’t commit? Very likely.

And if the state had charged capital murder, how likely would the jury have been to sentence him to death? A 7-year-old girl was raped and murdered in her own bed. The jury would have been outraged and rightfully so. Very likely, an innocent man would have been sentenced to death.

Everyone’s entitled to justice

My opposition to the death penalty is rooted, first, in my training and experience as a prosecutor. I served as a prosecutor in the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office from 1985 to 1990, before my time as a public defender. During that period I prosecuted approximately 50 homicide cases.

There is one guiding principle that all prosecutors adhere to: Every person is entitled to justice. People are murdered under the most innocent of circumstances. I once prosecuted a man who killed two children, a 4-year-old and a 7-year-old on New Year’s Eve because their mother broke a date with him. And people are murdered in murkier circumstances. I prosecuted battered women who killed their batterers. I prosecuted people who killed drug dealers in the course of drug deals gone bad. One thing you learn as a prosecutor is not to judge the victim of a crime. You approach each case with the same dedication and intensity, whether the victim was a drug dealer or a 4-year-old girl. Each human being has worth and dignity, and each human being is entitled to justice.

The most compelling illustration of that concept is this: If someone, another inmate or even a corrections officer, were to kill Michael Addison, probably the most reviled man in this state, a man who is sentenced to be executed, an assistant attorney general would be assigned to prosecute the case, and the state police would be assigned to investigate it. They would approach the case with the same professionalism and dedication that they approach any other. They would work as hard as they could to obtain a conviction against his murderer.

Why?

Because even a convicted killer has worth and dignity under the norms of our society and is entitled to justice. That is the prosecutor’s creed and sworn duty.

And for me, a former prosecutor, I could never reconcile the idea that we work to provide justice for every victim because every victim has worth and dignity and yet the government can nevertheless execute its own citizens.

The system is flawed

The second reason I oppose the death penalty is that as a prosecutor and as a public defender for 14 years, I came to see firsthand that the criminal justice system is flawed. It is flawed because it is made up of human beings, well-meaning and dedicated human beings, but human beings nonetheless. Most of the time the system gets it right. Guilty people are convicted and given appropriate sentences. Innocent people are acquitted. Most of the time, but not always.

I believe that I was a fair and diligent prosecutor. I tried hard to be. My fellow prosecutors also were fair and diligent. I believe I was a competent and passionate defense attorney. I tried very hard to be. My fellow defense attorneys were also competent and passionate. But I have no illusions. I was not perfect. Not infallible. And neither was anyone else.

I saw my share of mistakes in more than 30 years as a trial lawyer: incomplete investigations, false confessions, incorrect eye witness testimony, lab technicians using outdated equipment, attorneys who misunderstand or mischaracterize evidence, improper judicial rulings; jury verdicts based on passion. Any of these can lead to unfair results. Well-meaning, educated people, all wanting to do the right thing – and still mistakes get made.

It is true that we don’t use the death penalty in New Hampshire very often. It is true that it is a narrow law. But it is also true that as long as the law is on the books there is a risk that an innocent person will be executed.

(Barbara Keshen of Concord is chairwoman of the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.)

Well said, thank you for sharing this.

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