Addison appeal to state supreme court could set precedent
**FILE** In a Thursday, Oct. 23, 2008 file photo, defendant Michael Addison looks back at the gallery during his capital murder trial in Hillsborough County Superior Court in Manchester, N.H. A judge formally imposed New Hampshire's first death sentence in half a century on Addison, who fatally shot a Manchester police officer two years ago.As he did last week when a jury ordered him executed, Michael Addison showed no emotion Monday, Dec. 22, 2008. (AP Photo/Bob LaPree, Pool, File) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
Attorneys for convicted murderer Michael Addison will go before the state’s Supreme Court on Wednesday and ask the justices to weigh – for the first time in modern history – whether New Hampshire fairly sentenced a man to death.
The court’s order will be clearly critical for both Addison and the family of Officer Michael Briggs of Concord, slain in 2006 while on duty with the Manchester Police Department.
But how the justices weigh Addison’s appeal – that he was unfairly tried for reasons ranging from the venue to prejudice by the jury – will have wider repercussions, setting precedent for New Hampshire capital punishment statutes untested in the two decades since they were enacted.
“You will know, once they decide this case . . . if you have the same issue in the next death penalty case, it’s very likely going to be decided this way,” said Buzz Scherr, a professor at University of New Hampshire School of Law. “That’s what precedent is all about. It brings predictability to the court’s decisions.”
And now, lacking similar New Hampshire cases to lean on for guidance, the far-off ruling that will follow Wednesday’s arguments is anything but predictable.
“It’s like starting from scratch,” Scherr said. “This is (the justices’) first pass at it, so it’s like the first time you drive. It’s not more complex; it’s just harder.”
Addison is the first person sentenced to die under New Hampshire’s capital punishment statute, which allows a jury to impose a death sentence in limited cases including those involving the murder of a police officer.
Following three weeks of testimony, jurors found Addison guilty of capital murder Nov. 14, 2008, reading the verdict before a courtroom filled with more than 100 officers. The same jury was then tasked with deciding if Addison should be put to death, beginning another three weeks of testimony.
After two days of deliberations they came back with the verdict of death.
As Laura Briggs spoke of her husband at Addison’s sentencing, one of the alternate jurors tasked with contemplating his fate began to cry.
Within nearly 500 pages of appeals filed by Addison’s lawyers, the moment is mentioned as evidence that prosecutors went overboard when showing the jury the crime’s impact on Briggs’s family. Jurors were shown 36 pictures of the officer and three videos of him with his children, and they heard from four family members whose testimony totaled about 100 pages of court transcripts, 10 percent of the total testimony by the defense’s count.
Jurors were told about the 35-year-old Briggs’s military service, about the first apartment he shared with his wife, about his family vacations and about what kind of a father he was.
In the appeal, Addison’s lawyers argue the sheer volume of testimony did more than provide a “quick glimpse” of the deceased, a benchmark other courts have suggested is sufficient.
The testimony could lead jurors to make their decision based on passion, not reason, the defense argues. And if it were a different man that Addison had killed – one less loved and of lower regard in his community – the jury could have chosen life in prison over the death sentence.
But it’s not just the quantity, but also the content, of the victim impact testimony that concerns Addison’s attorneys.
Prosecutors showed images of Briggs as a child. The defense said other courts have warned against testimony depicting an adult victim’s early years because it can become overly emotional without giving insight.
“(T)he childhood photos the state admitted, including Briggs as a six-month-old baby; a seven-year-old boy, in a suit, hugging a dog; on his father’s lap while riding the family’s tractor; marching with his father in his Cub Scout uniform; and marching with his father while holding the American flag, were likewise powerful, but not relevant proof” of the specific harm caused by the murder, Addison’s lawyers wrote in their appeal.
The evidence affected the jury’s judgment, according to Addison’s lawyers, who cite as proof an interview done by one juror after the verdict.
“Walking into the courtroom, we saw a picture of a man in uniform and, as the weeks went by, we got to know him as a husband and a father and a son and a brother,” the unnamed juror said, according to the appeal. “He was a Marine, a police officer and a friend. He was all those things, and that’s what I’ll take away.”
The state denies the testimony was too much, saying statements from Briggs’s family members were limited, “dignified and restrained.” Of 27 witnesses who spoke during the sentencing, only four were related to the officer, the state said.
In comparison, they said nearly all of the 20 witnesses called by Addison’s lawyers – over half of whom were family members, neighbors or friends – spoke about his childhood.
“Through several of his various family members, the 28-year-old defendant” – Addison is now 32 – “presented to the jurors ten separate photographs showing him from infancy to adolescence.
. . . Half of these pictures were professionally-taken portraits, depicting the defendant at various times during his life as a young boy,” the state said in its response.
But the defense didn’t stop there, the state contests, and submitted scads of school, hospital and social services documents pertaining to Addison’s childhood. They compiled a 48-page timeline with important events in Addison’s life.
As Briggs’s family members spoke, the judge “made a point to observe both witnesses and jurors” and paid “particular attention to the presentation of and reactions to that evidence,” the state said.
“At no point did the court express concern that evidence was unduly emotional either in its delivery by the witnesses or its receipt by the jurors,” prosecutors wrote. “Quite the opposite, the court remarked that although jurors at times were ‘moved’ by the victim impact testimony presented, they had kept their emotions in check.”
Range of issues
The Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday on 11 specific issues raised by the defense. Eleven other issues will be briefed by both sides but not argued in person.
For clarity, the courts have divided the questions into four kinds of possible errors: constitutional, process, sentencing and influence of passion or prejudice.
The defense will raise, among other concerns, the following points:
∎ Jurors shouldn’t have been presented details of three crimes Addison committed in the days leading up to the murder.
∎ The defense should have been able to tell the jury about how executions are administered in the state.
∎ A judge should have granted defense lawyers’ request to dismiss two jurors they saw as unfit. The defense instead had to use two of its limited vetoes to take the potential jurors out of the pool when they should have been dismissed on cause alone.
∎ The state’s capital punishment statute is flawed in not requiring the jury to be certain of its sentence beyond a reasonable doubt, the same burden used in deciding guilt.
∎ The defense will again challenge whether it was fair to hold the trial in Hillsborough County. Addison’s lawyers petitioned for a change of venue before the trial, but that request was denied.
The proceedings in turn took place about 100 yards from the Manchester Police Department where Briggs had started his last shift and a few blocks away from the spot where he was killed. More importantly, the defense argues, the trial was held within – and the jurors were drawn from – a community that was experiencing an unprecedented level of outrage, and where news media coverage of the incident was overwhelming.
“The prospective jurors were too close to the police, too close to the case, and as a result, particularly susceptible to the state’s personal and emotional appeals for a death sentence,” Addison’s lawyers wrote in the appeal.
Of the 122 prospective jurors who had completed long-form questionnaires, more than half had strong ties to Manchester, they said. Almost a third had come into contact with a member of the city’s police force.
Nearly all of them knew about the case, the defense said, and more than 80 percent recognized Addison by name as the accused murderer.
The jurors were essentially a part of the community that felt victimized by Briggs’s death, the defense argues. They said the state highlighted this connection and exploited the venue by referring to Briggs as an officer who protected “our families, our safety, and our freedom.”
The state also depicted Addison as an outsider by emphasizing his Boston roots in its argument for the death penalty, the defense believes.
Addison “chose to bring his violence here to New Hampshire, to our state,” one prosecutor said during the sentencing, according to the appeal.
In its response, the state noted that the court has rejected change-of-venue requests on cases that garnered wider media attention than Addison’s, such as the 1991 prosecution of Pamela Smart, a school official from Derry charged with conspiring with her 15-year-old lover to murder her husband.
During jury selection for Addison’s trial, those shown to have prejudice were removed from the pool, the state argued. The jurors selected were then questioned each morning on their way into court about whether they had read any news reports on the case.
“With respect to actual prejudice, the defendant failed to demonstrate that the jurors who actually deliberated in his case were anything other than impartial,” prosecutors wrote in their response. “All of them swore that they would set aside any preconceived ideas, follow the court’s instructions, and decide the case fairly. None expressed the view that they would enter the case with a firm predisposition to find the defendant guilty.”
The 3½ hours of arguments set for Wednesday are just a small step in Addison’s appeals process. While it’s typical for the Supreme Court to take up to six months to issue an order, it could take longer considering the gravity of the case, according to UNH’s Scherr.
Should the court rule against Addison, his lawyers then have a myriad of other avenues to explore, including possible appeals to both the U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. District Court in Concord. Those options, Scherr estimates, could take a decade and up to $10 million to exhaust.
(Tricia L. Nadolny can be reached at 369-3306 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @tricia_nadolny.)