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Editorial: In death penalty case, shocking statements from judge

Last week, the five justices of the New Hampshire Supreme Court heard the appeal of the first death sentence levied in the state’s modern era. The court gave lawyers for Michael Addison, the man convicted of shooting and killing Manchester police officer Michael Briggs in 2006, a full day to make their case. The legal team raised serious questions that are expected to take the court at least a year to answer. Pursuing the death penalty will consume months of the court’s time and millions of taxpayer dollars. That alone should give citizens reason to question whether the alleged benefits of capital punishment – there are none in our view – are worth the cost to society and the additional pain for all involved. But testimony at Wednesday’s proceeding raised a surprising, serious and immediate concern that speaks to the ability of the state’s high court to fairly decide whether to take a person’s life in the name of the state. We’re referring to statements by Justice Robert Lynn in a discussion about the fairness of admitting information, including the testimony of family members, of what an outstanding person Briggs was.

The line is not always clear between victim-witness statements that fairly inform a judge and jurors of the uniqueness of the person killed and statements designed to appeal to the emotion of jurors and potentially prejudice the outcome. The intent of the law is to treat everyone equally and not, as justices warned in a U.S. Supreme Court case that broadened the nature of admissible statements, “to imply that one victim is less valued than another. . . . for instance, that the killer of a hard-working, devoted parent deserves the death penalty, but the murderer of a reprobate does not.”

Lynn’s comments were made during a broad discussion of statements that bear on the character of the victim, but they nonetheless suggest a view that is disquieting and perhaps disqualifying. Lynn was responding to defense attorney David Rothstein’s allegation that the state unfairly prejudiced the case by portraying Addison as an outsider and Briggs as protector of the community. That in itself may not have been inappropriate, and it also happens to be true. But Lynn’s response was shocking.

“Why wouldn’t it be an appropriate factor for the jury to consider that . . . the person someone killed was going to be the next Einstein? That (he) was going to find a cure for cancer? That he was going to find, going to do some tremendous things as demonstrated by what they’ve done already, on the other hand, as opposed to somebody who had a lesser potential,” Lynn said.

That might be true, Rothstein said, if one knew that someone was going to be the next Einstein, but in most circumstances, “who the victim is an arbitrary factor.”

Lynn persisted. “Isn’t it more, quote unquote, of a crime, you know, to kill the person who was going to find the cure for cancer than . . . someone whose potential was something less than that?”

The answer is a ringing, resounding “No.”

It is not the job of jurors or justices to mete out punishment based on their opinion of the relative societal worth of the victim. To the extent that is done, it’s the job of legislators and governors who, in New Hampshire, did just that when they decided that some crimes, including the killing of on-duty police officers like Briggs, may merit the death penalty.

We hope that Lynn was playing devil’s advocate to further the discussion. Because if he indeed so fundamentally misunderstands how the law applies in this instance, one is forced to question whether he should sit on the case.

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